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Pass this bill before Sept. 12
(Published May 15, 2006)

A bill introduced May 2 by Kathy Patterson and Vincent Orange and co-sponsored by seven of their D.C. City Council colleagues is perhaps the most important piece of legislation to come before the council since home rule was enacted.

The District of Columbia Open Government Meetings Act of 2006, if approved, would for the first time require that almost all of the public's business be conducted in the open allowing citizens greater access to the political deals struck by their elected or appointed representatives. The bill would allow only a handful of narrowly defined matters, such as contract negotiations, to be considered behind closed doors and would require that those discussions be made public once a final decision is reached. Penalty provisions would allow any citizen to mount a court challenge if government officials evaded the law.

While the proposed bill represents a major shift in the secretive way the D.C. government currently operates, it is by no means a novel approach to governing in the United States. For decades, as Patterson noted upon introducing the bill, the nation's capital has been "out-of-step with most other municipal and state governments in the amount of deliberation and decision-making that goes on behind closed doors." Orange, who chairs the Government Operations Committee, to which the bill was referred, noted that enactment of the bill would "lead to immediate transparency in government" and promised to "move swiftly to conduct hearings and get this on the legislative agenda for a vote."

It is no accident that this legislative proposal arises during one of the District's major election years, when voters will select a new mayor, council chairman and six other members of the city council. Impending elections provide excellent leverage for citizens to demand that their elected representatives do what is right.

In this case, that means passing a bill that four powerful players on the 13-member council Chairman Linda Cropp, At-Large Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans and Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry remain reluctant to support. Voters should question why these four council members especially Cropp, who is running for mayor are withholding their support from legislation that would empower citizens who seek to exercise their right to know what their government is doing in their name.

Local news organizations, including The Common Denominator, and community organizations were involved in the 18-month process that resulted in the proposed open meetings bill. The Federation of Citizens Associations of D.C., which represents 46 neighborhood groups from across the city, is urging the council to quickly enact the legislation.

We applaud Patterson, Orange and council members Sharon Ambrose, Kwame Brown, David Catania, Adrian Fenty, Jim Graham, Vincent Gray and Phil Mendelson for stepping forward to propose strong open meetings legislation. We also note that seven of the nine are seeking D.C. voters' support in the fall elections. Therefore, we urge them to use their veto-proof nine votes to pass this bill before the Sept. 12 primary election. Only then will citizens know that their support for open government is not simply a campaign ploy.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator