D.C. Council Votes to End Independence of Open Government Watchdog

UPDATE 6-1-18: Council final vote will be later in June.

Voting Tuesday (15) for a measure to place the beleaguered Office of Open Government squarely under the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), the Council abandoned the concept of “an independent agency to promote open governance in the District of Columbia” that it enacted eight years ago.

The office enforces open meetings and open records laws and provides leadership throughout D.C. government on transparency issues.

The board will now control the director and opinions of the office may be appealed to the board. The mayor will be required to appoint one BEGA board member with expertise in the field but in general the Office of Open Government will be another unit under the board, similar to the Office of Ethics.

This plan, if finally enacted, will be a dramatic shift from the independent watchdog written into the original agency charter in 2010. The office was moved into BEGA later, solely to solve the problem that the mayor had not appointed a director, leaving its independent status unchanged in the law.

Board chair Tameka Collier was seemingly unaware of the law when she complained to the Council at the annual BEGA oversight hearing this spring that the board felt uninformed about Office activity and was not prepared to respond when aggrieved agency heads complained about enforcement opinions by the Office head, Traci Hughes.

The Office in recent months had issued critical opinions about high profile agencies such as the nonprofit board operating the United Medical Center, the charter school board, a mayoral commission and a judicial nominations committee. The office sued one agency in Superior Court when repeated efforts failed to gain compliance with open meetings rules.

Public witnesses, including the D.C. Open Government Coalition, praised Hughes’s work, in contrast to the board vote to deny her a new term when her appointment ended this spring.

Collier acknowledged she had consulted with the mayor’s office about her frustrations and her search for a “legislative solution” to the independence of the Office. Because of the thin rationale offered by Collier for the board action, Council member Charles Allen expressed concerns that the board stance frayed the trust of the community.

The budget vote was the first of two. Changes are common before the final vote and advocates will certainly be letting Council members hear their questions and concerns about the marked shift away from the original intent in the law.

The changes in the Office of Open Government are in the “BEGA Amendment Act,” included in the 2019 Budget Support Act, Bill 22-753. See pp. 22-40 of the committee print of the bill (Title I, Section Eye).