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End D.C.'s secret meetings
(Published February 20, 2006)

The public can only speculate about the back-room political deals that may have been cut Feb. 7 when, during a four-hour period, the D.C. City Council first voted 8-5 to reject a new stadium for the Washington Nationals and then reversed itself to approve the deal on a 9-4 vote.

That's because most of the council's substantive discussion on the matter happened behind closed doors. The District's elected public servants chose to leave the council chamber -- twice, for extended private discussions -- so that D.C. taxpayers and voters could not hear all details debated about one of the most expensive publicly funded construction projects in the city's history.

It is wrong for the council to conduct the public's business in secret, as though council members have a personal proprietary interest that grants them exclusive privilege to information that should be shared with the people they represent.

Unfortunately, secret meetings like the ones the council held to discuss the stadium deal -- and which the council holds before every legislative meeting -- are perfectly legal in the District of Columbia, even though they are illegal in most other jurisdictions throughout the United States.

D.C. law does not recognize the public's right to know why elected leaders make their decisions. Current D.C. law requires only that final votes by government bodies be cast at public meetings. The law requires neither public notice of those meetings nor public discussion leading up to final votes on the public's business. The decision-making process may legally remain secretive, if elected leaders so choose.

The law should be changed.

Members of the public deserve the opportunity to observe their public servants at work for many reasons -- not the least of which is to allow voters to pass informed judgment on whether their elected representatives are serving them well.

As the District prepares to elect a new mayor and six members of the 13-member city council this fall, voters should demand that candidates explain their position on public access to the public's business. Government meetings and government records should be open to public view, and public officials should be required -- under penalty of law -- to ensure that the public has the opportunity to become fully informed on matters of public policy before legislative or regulatory actions occur.

The capital city of a nation that touts government of, by and for the people should shine the brightest beacon of all.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator