Close to Home, Part 2: DC’s Open Meetings Act

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Although we preach the importance of public meetings, we recognize that there are some legitimate frustrations to be had with their openness. For instance, a lot of public meetings are boring. And long. And, critics are right: public meetings aren’t necessarily the best format for every single deliberation made by a governing body.

But most of these “issues” are besides the point. As our Policy guy, John, noted, the need for public meetings doesn’t mean that every conversation needs to happen in public, but that all the official meetings should. That’s the basis behind our push to open up the meetings of the “Super Committee” — the body created by Congress to deal with our national debt — and an important factor to consider in the arrests made at a DC local gov meeting in June.

I wrote about the event shortly after it happened, but the quick version goes like this: Two reporters were arrested by Park Police at a Taxicab Commission public meeting at the request of members of the commission: the first for taking photographs of the meeting. The second, for filming the arrest of the first. The charge? Disorderly conduct and unlawful entry…which, at a public meeting (and with video evidence of how they actually acted), is absurd. Thankfully, the charges have since been dropped and there’s been a lot of conversation about the future of the Taxicab Commission (Council Member Tommy Wells wants to scrap it, local blogger David Alpert wants to reform it), but there’s been little conversation about the impact of this event on DC’s public meetings law.

The gray zone in this issue is that DC’s Open Meetings Act doesn’t actually specify whether or not meetings can be photographed or recorded. But, as the DC Open Government Coalition pointed out, “The absence of an explicit statutory mandate to allow recordings of open meetings does not translate into a prohibition [of recordings].”

Following pressure from the media and advocacy groups like the DC Open Government Coalition and the National Press Photographers Association, on August 1st the Taxicab Commission issued a revised policy on public attendance, behavior, and recording during meetings:

Pursuant to section 742 (the “Open Meetings Act”) of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act … all meetings and hearings of the Commission are open to the public. Also, a recording (or transcript) of the proceedings will be made available to the public free of charge.

A member of the public, including any representative of the media, may record or photograph the proceedings of the Commission at an open meeting by means of a tape recorder or any other recording device so long as the person does not impede the orderly conduct of the meeting, by, for instance, creating excessive noise that impairs the ability of others to hear the proceeding or using excessively bright artificial light.

The policy goes on to review all the ways the commission does not have to support public recordings, but open government activists in America’s littlest state should still take heart. Perhaps this renewed policy will set a precedent for the broader Open Meetings Act, or will at least inspire District residents and activists to advocate for one. In their statement about the Taxicab Commission debacle, the DC Open Government Coalition highlighted the fact that the role of director for DC’s Open Government Office has been vacant for almost 4 months. The office, they note, was established as the public’s primary means of enforcing the Open Meetings Act and funding for the Office has already been provided.

Filling this office is a step DC can take to show their commitment to open government and to reduce the “burden” of meeting citizens’ requirements for greater transparency. DC is by no means the only governing body wrestling to adjust to the increased demands on and attention paid to its public meeting and public records laws: this sort of news is making headlines all across the country. The important thing is that, going forward, DC and other governments do find ways to adapt to the Age of the Interwebs and the increasing expectations constituents have for public access — and that they take advantage of the free tools (YouTube…) and advocacy groups out there offering help.

*Photo credit: matthewgriff, via Flickr.

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