UPDATED 3/16, 11:15 A.M.
This week is Sunshine Week, a “national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”
Today, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser announced a step toward those ends, unveiling a bill to strengthen the city’s open-meetings law.
Currently, the law only requires meeting where “official action” is taken to be opened to the public. And that, invariably, has come to meet a meeting where a vote is taken—-even if all the details on what’s being voted on has been hashed out in advance behind closed doors.
That is, for instance, what happened last summer, when the council was charged with closing a sizable gap in the 2010 city budget.
To get the job done in late July, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray gathered his colleagues and staff in a Wilson Building conference room, where they debated what programs would be cut and what taxes would be raised. Press was allowed in the room, but the general public was not. With members in general agreement, the plan was adopted—-the “official action”—-by the council in a subsequent public meeting in the council chamber.
The Bowser bill makes it plain: “The public policy of the District of Columbia is that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the actions of those who represent them. Formation of public policy and conduct of public business shall not occur in secret.”
Specifically, the public would have a right “to be present at all meetings of public bodies that advise or determine how the public’s business will be carried out, and to witness all phases of policy formulation and decision-making, including information-gathering, discussion, deliberation, and resolution.” And a meeting is defined as any gathering of a quorum of the council or other policymaking body. Chance meetings and social occasions are excepted “unless it is held to evade the letter or spirit of this section.”
Further exceptions are in the bill for collective bargaining sessions, legal consultations, certain business negotiations, meetings concerning criminal investigations, and others. To enforce the law, citizens would be able to sue in Superior Court.
This is not the first attempt at public-meeting reform. In 2006, with then-Council Chairman Linda Cropp under fire for her institution of closed-door pre-legislative meeting breakfasts, Councilmembers Kathy Patterson and Vincent Orange introduced an open-meetings bill. But colleagues—-members Carol Schwartz and Jack Evans
and Jim Graham prime among them—-led opposition to the bill, saying it would be burdensome for policymakers.
The council ended up voting 7 to 6 to send the bill back to committee, essentially killing it. Gray, as Ward 7 councilmember, cast the deciding vote.
UPDATE, 5:10 P.M.: Graham spokesperson Brian DeBose calls to challenge LL’s assertion that Graham was a prime opponent of the Orange/Patterson bill. “At every instance when this bill came before the council in committee and in legislative session, Jim Graham voted in favor of it,” DeBose says—-including a vote against its recommittal.
LL drew his characterization from Graham’s support of an amendment, as reported in the Washington Post, of an amendment that sought to redefine “meeting” to exclude “general discussions among members of a public body” where “there is no intention for the discussion to lead to an official action.” That amendment, Patterson said at the time, “guts the bill.”
Graham has yet to take a position on Bowser’s bill, DeBose says.
UPDATE, 5:18 P.M.: Courtesy of DeBose, here is the roll call on the recommittal vote. Voting yes were Sharon Ambrose, Marion Barry, Kwame Brown, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Phil Mendelson, Carol Schwartz; noes were David Catania, Cropp, Adrian Fenty, Graham, Orange, Patterson.
UPDATE, 3/16, 11:15 A.M.: This morning, Bowser officially introduced her bill; Kwame Brown co-introduced. Co-sponsoring are: Michael Brown, Catania, Graham, Gray, Harry Thomas Jr., and Tommy Wells. Kudos especially to Kwame Brown and Gray for standing up where they didn’t in 2006. May they see the bill through.