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Council, mayor propose changes to District's public records law
(Published May 17, 2004)

Major revisions are being proposed in the way D.C. law requires city officials to respond to public requests for access to government documents.

The proposed changes to the District’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are contained in four bills being considered by the D.C. City Council, which would:

At a hearing May 12 before the council’s Committee on Government Operations, Secretary of the District Sherryl Hobbs Newman and the mayor’s general counsel, Leonard H. Becker, testified that many of the changes are necessary to eliminate a backlog of FOIA appeals pending in the Executive Office of the Mayor.

"Numerous appeals to the mayor are received each month, and only one person in the Office of the Secretary of the District is available to handle them," Becker told the committee. "There is currently a backlog of about 70 appeals, and it has become impossible for the Office of the Secretary to answer the appeals in the time allowed under existing law."

During the hearing, Becker and Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, engaged in a spirited disagreement after Patterson suggested that the backlog might be eliminated if the government simply began handing over public documents more readily to the public.

Becker described doing so as "a willy-nilly, de facto fly-by-night system" that would be "a recipe for chaos."

"I view the FOIA as an important…process mechanism that ensures regularity of review and consistency of disposition of requests. …We have to have a regular process or otherwise we don't have a government," Becker said.

The mayor's legal counsel said handing out public documents over the counter when requested by the public, as suggested by Patterson, "would not be a responsible way to run a government."

A majority of the city council is sponsoring or co-sponsoring two of the four pieces of legislation, Bill 15-483 and Bill 15-668, which would restrict access to council records and re-work portions of the D.C. law to mirror the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Most of the proposed changes in the process for government handling of FOIA requests are contained in Bill 15-818, which council Chairman Linda W. Cropp introduced at the request of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The bill currently has no co-sponsors.

The fourth proposal, Bill 15-822, would tie the costs associated with D.C. FOIA requests to "the federal administrative cost schedule as set forth in [the United States Code]."

A panel representing the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association testified in opposition to most of the proposed changes, characterizing them as measures that would largely increase delays in providing both citizens and journalists with access to public documents.

The panel included press association board members Talibah Chikwendu, editor of The Afro-American Newspapers, and Kathryn Sinzinger, editor and publisher of The Common Denominator; Eric Lieberman, associate counsel at The Washington Post; and association Executive Director George White.

D.C. resident Michael Sindrum related his own difficulties in obtaining public documents from the government and repeatedly emphasized the expense involved when citizens are required to appeal to D.C. Superior Court for assistance.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator