Taxicab Commission arrests, exclusion protested

In a letter to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. Open Government Coalition protested the arrests of two bloggers and exclusion of a Washington Post reporter from the Taxicab Commission meeting June 22. The Commission called on Gray to appoint a director of the D.C. Open Government Office, the only body able to enforce the open meetings law. It has been nearly three months since the new open meetings law took effect and the post remains vacant, even though the City Council appropriated funds for it in December.  Coalition President Tom Susman wrote:

On behalf of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, I am writing to protest the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s conduct of its June 21 public meeting. The Commission’s actions showed either ignorance of, or a gross disregard for, the statutory rights of the public and press under the D.C. Open Meetings Amendment Act of 2010. (D.C. Code §§ 2.571-79.) The Coalition requests that you use this incident as an opportunity to emphasize that your Administration supports the principles of this new law and will not tolerate the closure of public meetings or any other action that prevents the public from fully participating in or obtaining media reports on those meetings.

As you doubtless know, two bloggers covering the meeting were arrested by U.S. Park Police and marched out of the room in handcuffs, ostensibly for disrupting the proceeding by recording it on their cell phones. (They were later placed in a jail cell and charged with disorderly conduct.) Another journalist was blocked from re-entering the room after leaving for a moment to see what happened when the bloggers were taken outside. The Park Police officer who barred him from returning to the meeting gave no explanation for his exclusion – a clear violation of D.C. Code § 2.574(a)(2) and (c)(1) – and said only that he was “just following orders,” according to the reporter’s firsthand account in The Washington Post. We do not know whether other members of the press and public were excluded from some or all of the meeting as well. What we do know is that the entire matter started because Interim Chairwoman Dena Reed -- a member of your administration -- refused to allow these reporters to record the proceedings of this open, public meeting.

Some of the Commissioners later said they did not ask the Park Police to make arrests. Whether this is true is beside the point. The Commission is a public body of the District of Columbia government and, as such, it must ensure compliance with D.C. law. It cannot evade its responsibilities by meeting in a federal facility or deferring to federal police officials.

Mrs. Reed pointed out in a statement that the newly revised Open Meetings Act does not specifically grant a right to record public meetings. That is also beside the point; plainly the right to engage in non-disruptive recording goes hand in hand with a public meeting. The absence of an explicit statutory mandate to allow recordings of open meetings does not translate into a prohibition; we believe that a government committed to transparency should understand the importance of allowing recordings that will inevitably facilitate more accurate reporting and improved public understanding of what transpired during the meeting.

We believe the episode underscores the need to implement a thorough training program for all public bodies that are subject to the new statute; this training should begin immediately. It also highlights the urgency of appointing a director for the Open Government Office – a position vacant for almost 3 months. This Office was established in the statute approved in December 2010 as the public’s primary means of enforcing the Open Meetings Act; funding for the Office has been provided in the current year’s appropriation. The D.C. Open Government Coalition is willing and eager to assist your administration in any way that we can to attain those ends.