There is exciting news on the open government front. The D.C. government is taking strides toward improving its open meetings law. As we journalists know, openness and transparency are essential elements of a democracy.
Kudos to D.C. Pro board member and media attorney Bob Becker, who helped work on the new bill, representing SPJ. He prepared the following account:
D.C. City Councilmember Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) introduced a bill March 16 to replace the city's antiquated, ineffective open meetings statute. Councilmember Kwame Brown (at large) co-sponsored the bill, and members Yvette Alexander (Ward 7), Marion Barry (Ward 8), Michael Brown (at large), David Catania (at large), Jim Graham (Ward 1), Vincent Gray (Chairman), Harry Thomas (Ward 5) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) were co-introducers.
The bill would require the City Council and all boards and commissions made up of elected or appointed officials to meet in public for most purposes. Exemptions permit secret deliberations by bodies performing quasi-judicial functions, to preserve the attorney-client privilege or protect proprietary information, to discuss personnel matters, contract negotiations, anti-terrorism measures, academic testing, award nominations, student discipline, ongoing investigations, and training sessions.
The bill sets standards for giving the public notice of upcoming meetings and agendas, procedures for going into secret session, and for reporting what occurred behind closed doors. The city's existing two-paragraph open meetings statute permits agencies to conduct virtually any business in closed session so long as members return to open session to vote.
Bowser's bill must be referred to the Council's Government Operations Committee chaired by Mary Cheh (Ward 3) for a hearing. Because 2010 is an election year in Washington, the Council would have to vote on the measure by early July to ensure passage before the September primary election. Unless it is passed by then, enactment may have to wait until the next Council session beginning in January. This would be especially true if the makeup of the Council is likely to change after the November election.
The D.C. Pro chapter and the D.C. Open Government Coalition assisted Bowser's staff in drafting the bill, which is very similar to one former Councilmember Kathy Patterson introduced in 2006.