The District of Columbia policies of open records, open meetings and open data need updated laws and enough resources to make them work, according to five testimonies from the Open Government Coalition to hearings as the D.C. Council committees reviewed Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 to be voted on in less than a month.
Updating and amplifying points made in oversight hearing testimonies earlier in the year, Coalition witnesses recommended:
- Full funding for the Office of Open Government (instead of the mayor’s proposed cut); the Coalition also explained the budget that will be needed for a proposed Information Technology and Transparency Commission. See Coalition written statement for the Committee on Executive Administration and Labor, Anita Bonds (D-At large), chair.
- Support for the $30M increase in the capital budget for the Office of the Secretary/Public Records Service, needed for the planned D.C. Archives facility; resources also to assure the architects are paid for enhanced public engagement in the planning, as the committee directed last year. See Coalition written statement also for the Committee on Executive Administration and Labor, Anita Bonds (D-At large), chair.
- Direction and funding to the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to improve 10,000 users’ FOIA request experience by enhancing or replacing the online portal and related software; also, direction to review FOIA compliance and to start plans for digitizing DC records as directed in two committee reports last year. See Coalition written statement for the Committee on Public Works & Operations, Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), chair.
- Direction and funding to the Office of Administrative Hearings to complete the long-delayed online publication of opinions and expand information and other help for public users of the court as directed last year. See Coalition written statement also for the Committee on Public Works & Operations, Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), chair.
- Transferring the appeals of agency FOIA denials from the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel to another office along with the necessary resources because of continued performance problems. See Coalition written statement for the Committee on Executive Administration & Labor, Anita Bonds (D-At large) chair.
Council members in every session referred to budget cuts in the mayor’s proposed plans under review. Many programs face budget pressure as federal emergency stimulus funds expire and the Chief Financial Officer predicts local tax revenues are likely to fall almost a half-billion dollars in the coming three fiscal years 2024-2026.
The 10 committees and the Committee of the Whole held over 50 hearings on 130 agencies from March 27 to April 13, followed by a week’s break that just ended on April 21. Each committee now decides spending details for agencies they oversee (and any proposed cross-committee transfers), together with any legal or policy proposals accompanying the numbers. All are collected in each committee’s budget report and voted on at “markup” sessions set for April 25-27. The budget of $18 billion is complex, so the markup sessions are not pencils-out and figures-flying; they last barely an hour, and details are mostly decided in advance.
The Council chairman, Phil Mendelson, then reconciles the committees’ plans and other priorities to pull them together in a comprehensive budget proposal. A little-known part of the process is that the chairman also proposes an omnibus bill called the Budget Support Act that collects dozens of changes in law needed to go with the budget. Some came from the mayor, who submitted a draft with her budget; others came from Council members. Committees have seen them, but none have had public discussion in hearings.
The full Council will consider and vote on the budget on May 16 and May 30. The Budget Support Act will also be considered for the first time on May 16; the second reading is not yet scheduled.
To add your support for the Coalition’s budget and policy proposals, please get in touch with Council members whose committees deal with open-government-related agencies as discussed above. Their email addresses are:
Anita Bonds (D-At large), email@example.com — Chair, Committee on Executive Administration and Labor (Office of Open Government, Office of the Secretary/Archives, and MOLC)
Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), firstname.lastname@example.org — Chair, Committee on Public Works & Operations (OCTO and OAH)