When the D.C. Council Government Operations Committee met June 25 to vet the mayor's nominees to the Ethics and Government Accountability Board, Coalition President Thomas M. Susman advocated appointment, long overdue, of a director for the Open Government Office created in December 2010. The Freedom of Information and Open Meetings statutes are not the new board's main focus, but the Coalition wanted to highlight the importance of government transparency as a means of bolstering ethics in government.
Susman told the committee:
I address my statement today to that small but far from insignificant responsibility that will soon fall to the members of the Ethics Board – that of selecting the Director of the D.C. Open Government Office and overseeing its operations. The Council initially established that Office through an amendment to the Open Meetings Amendment Act of 2010 enacted late that year. The Open Government Office was vested with authority to issue advisory opinions in response to complaints under the Open Meetings Act and the FOI Act, to establish procedures implementing both statutes, and to train public officials and employees regarding compliance.
To ensure the Office’s independence, its Director was to be appointed to a five-year term by the Mayor with the advice and consent of the Council. The Director could be removed only for cause.
The Council had provided funding to get the Office underway, and when Mayor Gray’s first official act in office was the issuance of a January 3 memorandum 2011-1 stating that disclosure and transparency should be the rule in his administration, it appeared merely a matter of a short period of time before the new Office would be underway. Open Government Coalition representatives had multiple communications to or meetings with the Mayor, City Administrator Allen Lew, and Attorney General Irvin Nathan, stressing the importance of appointing a Director and getting the Open Government Office in gear. Yet no appointment of a Director was made and, for over a year, the Office was not established.
Frustrated by the Mayor’s inaction, the Council at the end of 2011 incorporated in the Ethics and Accountability Act a provision transferring the Open Government Office “as an independent office within the Board” and providing that the Office “shall be headed by a Director appointed by the Board . . . .” (Sec. 501 of D.C. Act 19-318, amending D.C. Official Code §§ 2-592 & 2-594(a).)
With the confirmation of members of the Board of Ethics and Accountability imminent, the D.C. Open Government Coalition emphasizes once again the critical importance of getting the Open Government Office up and running. We should not have to remind the Council of the relationship between transparency and public confidence in government, and of the Brandeis admonition that sunlight is an excellent disinfectant. At a time when the eyes of the world have focused primarily on the ethical problems besetting our city’s government here, we hope and expect that establishing not just a viable, but an aggressive, Open Government Office should be high on our agenda.
While the Open Government Coalition takes no position on the nominees to the Ethics Board, we urge the new Board members to attend to this overdue task of appointing a highly qualified Open Government Office Director and ensuring that this Office is quickly established. That should be part of this Committee’s, and the Council’s, agenda as well.