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'Time for D.C. to catch up'
Bobb joins open meetings advocates in supporting bill
(Published June 12, 2006)

Staff Writer

City Administrator Robert Bobb added his support June 1 to a bill, sponsored by a majority of the D.C. City Council, that would require most D.C. government entities to conduct the public's business in open, public session.

Bobb, representing the Wil-liams administration, was one of several persons who testified at a public hearing that the District is out of step with most other U.S. jurisdictions, which already require most aspects of government decision-making to be readily accessible to the public.

"In our estimation, the District of Columbia has the most outdated, ineffective open meetings statute in the country. It is time for D.C. to catch up with the rest of the country," asserted Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Jack Schwartz, who gave testimony to relate Maryland's experience when it strengthened its "weak" open meetings law in 1991, said that "those who preferred the old, permissive law objected that a tougher law would hamstring the effective conduct of government. this simply has not happened."

Council members Kathy Patterson, D-Ward 3, and Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5, introduced the legislation last month with co-sponsorship from council members Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6; Kwame Brown, D-At Large; David Catania, I-At Large; Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4; Jim Graham, D-Ward 1; Vincent Gray, D-Ward 7; and Phil Mendelson, D-At Large.

Current D.C. law requires only that final votes by government bodies be conducted during meetings open to the public. The proposed law would require advance public notice of meetings, limit the subjects that could legally be discussed in closed-door meetings and provide penalties lacking in current law for willful violations of the law.

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, one of four council members who is not backing the bill, called it "dangerous" to "air all of our dirty laundry in public." She said she objected to the bill being proposed in an election year and characterized news media support for the bill as driven by a desire to report on government officials' squabbling.

"Media will have more fun with us," she said.

The Common Denominator was among media organizations that participated with community representatives and city officials during an 18-month process that resulted in the proposed legislation.

Some of the strongest opposition to the bill during the hearing before the council's Committee on Government Operations came from a D.C. Board of Education member and advocates for D.C. charter schools.

School board Vice President Carolyn Graham, a mayoral appointee to the partially elected board, said that the "level of notification to the public would increase to becoming onerous" under the bill's requirements. She also expressed concern that the bill "might lead to lawsuits."

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Association, argued that charter schools should be exempt from the bill because "public charter schools are not government bodies" and that they do not need the "confusion of inclusion in this bill."

In a spirited exchange with Edelin and charter school advocate Robert Cane, committee Chairman Orange insisted that boards of trustees of charter schools, though they are owned and operated by nonprofit organizations, should be covered by the open meetings law due to the level of public funding they receive and their very existence owing to government-issued charters. He said that refining the definition of public charter schools needs to be addressed legislatively.

Most of the individuals who testified against aspects of the bill were members of government bodies that would be required to alter their deliberative processes if the bill is passed. Reasons for opposition to the bill included the inability to get meeting schedules out to the public on time, a feared increase in the number of lawsuits faced by elected or appointed officials, and the belief that the quality of meetings would change significantly.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator