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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nationís capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

PRIVATE MEETING: If you needed to talk with a D.C. City Council member on Jan. 21, you were out of luck. That's because all 13 council members spent the day meeting behind closed doors at the Georgetown Conference Center, talking among themselves - and out of public earshot - about how they plan to spend D.C. taxpayers' money during the current year and well into the future.

Among the topics discussed, according to council sources and an agenda obtained by The Common Denominator, were (1) what to do with the District's nearly $318 million budget surplus from fiscal 2004, which ended last Sept. 30; (2) whether taxes should be cut; and (3) where the council's budgeting and legislative priorities should be placed during the current legislative period. The afternoon agenda included an overview of the city's fiscal 2006 outlook and five-year plan, as well as a review of the capital budget and spending priorities.

And you thought the public's input was important to help set the agenda? Think again.

The District of Columbia may be the only jurisdiction in the United States where it is perfectly legal for elected officials to hold all of their substantive discussions on public policies and public spending during secret meetings. No public notice was given of the council's meeting. Not even council staff members were allowed to participate, and they were sworn to secrecy about the meeting's location.

This isn't the first time the council has held such a meeting to kick off a new legislative period. It has become traditional for the council to hold these sessions, which they euphemistically refer to as an "annual retreat." Sometimes they even have been held out of town to ensure the council's privacy.

No doubt, the secrecy will continue throughout the year as well. The existence of council Chairman Linda Cropp's private breakfast meetings, at which the council and sometimes the mayor gather before legislative meetings, has become well-known, and there's been no indication that the council intends to discontinue the practice.

Did we hear someone on the council mention "open government," "transparency" and "accountability"?

LET THE SUN SHINE: Newspapers nationwide, including The Common Denominator, are preparing to sponsor "Sunshine Week" in mid-March to increase public awareness of the public's right to know what their government is doing. The Common Denominator is seeking local organizations with an interest in promoting open government to partner in this effort. Interested organization representatives should call Editor and Publisher Kathy Sinzinger at (202) 635-6397 or e-mail her at editor@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator