by Tony Bullock
(Washington Post, September 3, 2006)
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Compared with open-meetings practices and sunshine laws across the country, the District of Columbia is still stumbling around in the Dark Ages. Most states adopted open-meetings laws in the 1970s and 1980s and have updated and applied them to all government boards and commissions.
But the District's open-meetings law remains seriously deficient in that it applies only to meetings of public bodies where "official action" is taken. This permits public bodies to meet and discuss public business in private — without public notice — as long as no votes are taken. The standard trigger for almost all states is the presence of a quorum.
The most conspicuous open-meetings issue in the District is the decades-old practice of closed-door "breakfast meetings" by the D.C. Council. These regular meetings often include the mayor, the city administrator and other top officials.
I attended several of these meetings when I served in the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Typically, the agenda included legislation, controversial projects, personnel issues, budget matters and other topics of interest to the public. These closed-door meetings are where arguments are made, compromises are agreed to and — in many instances — issues are decided.
Yet there is no public record of these meetings, and until very recently the media and the public were not allowed in the room. Several council members fail to appreciate that people want to hear the back-and-forth debate. They want to see how the issue came together, not just the result.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Woodrow Wilson wrote about the need to throw light on the operation of government, specifically, to shine "light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government."
It violates the principle of open government to support a practice where all the real debate takes place in closed session, with council members only coming out in public to go through the motions of a vote. And it sets a horrible example for other boards and commissions throughout the District government.
The D.C. Council should be commended for its efforts to modernize the District's open-meetings law. When the council goes back into session later this month, it should finish the job it started earlier this year.
The public and the media have a right to be present at these meetings. That right needs to be guaranteed and protected in the law.
— Tony Bullock, Washington
The writer, executive vice president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, was communications director to Mayor Williams from June 2001 through August 2004.