D.C. bill threatens local government accountability

by
A picture of the Wilson Buidling in D.C.

The Wilson Building, where the mayor and City Council of Washington, D.C. is housed. (Photo credit: Andrew Wiseman/Wikimedia Commons)

Washington, D.C., boasts a unique system of neighborhood governance, but a proposed bill would eliminate the rights of District residents to hold their most local officials accountable.

In a July 6 hearing, Councilmember Anita Bonds explained that the Advisory Neighborhood Commission Omnibus Amendment Act of 2016 (B21-0697) is meant to make it easier for the city’s volunteer commissioners to govern as elected officials.

If you are unfamiliar with the role of the advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs), they are the most local elected representatives in the District of Columbia. Most people might know that the federal district is split into eight wards, each with its own D.C. councilmember, but they may not realize that D.C. is also divided into 30 ANCs, with a total of 299 commissioners elected from single-member districts. The ANCs describe themselves as “the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.”

Each of the commissioners is elected, on a volunteer basis, to represent an average of 2,000 residents. ANC commissioners address important issues such as zoning, economic development and liquor licensing. Some of the reforms in the omnibus bill would improve the governing capacity, but one provision would exempt ANCs and commissioners from the District’s Freedom of Information Act.

A short provision, nestled toward the end of B21-0697, declares that an ANC “shall not be considered an agency, an independent agency, or a subordinate agency.” In doing so, the drafters — Councilmembers Bonds and David Grosso — would erase the FOIA requirement with one fell swoop. Another portion of the bill states that ANC commissioners may “choose to transmit” certain information for publication on their websites or social media. The bill would also entrench current law, which exempts ANCs from the requirements of the D.C. Open Meetings Act.

“The motivation behind this provision is to alleviate an impractically high administrative burden that takes an inordinate amount of time from commissioners’ primary function and duties,” Bonds said.

In response, open government advocates, community members, and some ANC commissioners cried foul.

In their testimony, witnesses from Sunlight, the D.C. Open Government Coalition, the D.C. Office of Open Government and other groups argued that the ANC commissioners do not need a free pass from FOIA, but more capacity to comply with its guidelines. That capacity comes from other provisions in the same bill, including those that expand storage in commissioners’ official email inboxes and allow them to receive a $500 yearly stipend to support their time on the job.

Alex Howard, a Sunlight senior analyst, and LaVita Tuff, a member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition Board of Directors and a policy analyst at Sunlight, testified against this provision.

In his remarks, Howard argued that there is “no compelling need” for the anti-FOIA provision of the bill. Tuff emphasized that the bill would weaken constituents’ power to hold their elected officials accountable, especially when those officials get to choose what the public gets to know.

Barbara Kahlow of the West End Citizens Association, a non-ANC civic group, testified that FOIA allows residents access to ANC spending records, an essential means of keeping commissioners honest. Recent history highlights why D.C. needs this: In 2012, a former ANC commissioner pled guilty to fraud and using $28,000 in public funds for his personal whims. In 2015, the Office of the D.C. Auditor reported that some ANCs made illegal disbursements while others failed to maintain meeting minutes — or evidence that public meetings happened at all.

Mike Silverstein, commissioner for ANC 2B06 in Dupont Circle, came as a dissenting voice, arguing that FOIA requirements could discourage potential candidates from running.

The plurality of witnesses, however, criticized the provision as a step in the wrong direction, away from transparency and toward government where decisions happen in the shadows. ANC Commissioners Mark Eckenwiler, ANC 6C04 near Union Station, and Kathy Henderson, ANC 5D05 near Brentwood, agreed that the anti-FOIA provision should be removed.

“It’s appalling to suggest that ANCs should be exempted from FOIA,” Eckenwiler said.

In her testimony, Tuff highlighted a contradiction in the legislation. Those who support the legislation, including Councilmember Bonds, emphasized that the bill would increase respect for ANC members as elected officials. But, according to Tuff, “The bill demands that agencies keep ANCs informed, but seeks a blanket exclusion from the Freedom of Information Act that would effectively deprive neighborhood residents of the ability to oversee their elected representatives.”

To this end, Sunlight worked with Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Grosso to draft the Strengthening Transparency and Open Access to Government Act of 2016, which would mandate that ANCs conform to the Open Meetings Act.

This bill follows the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Transparency Amendment Act of 2013. As Sunlight wrote at the time, that bill would have held ANCs to a higher standard by requiring them to release a variety of documents to the public, including meeting minutes, bank transactions and policy decisions. That bill did not come to a vote.

Residents have already made clear that they want transparency: Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, testified that the number of FOIA requests to ANC commissioners has climbed in recent years.

Traci Hughes, director of the Office of Open Government, said that her office is eager to assist ANCs in meeting compliance requirements. Howard, of Sunlight, made the same point, emphasizing that Sunlight would be happy to help build capacity on this issue.

In his testimony, Robert Vinson Brannum, former president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, made the overarching point: “ANC commissioners deserve to be respected as elected officials.” But if they want that respect, they have to earn it. And that begins with accountability to their voters.

D.C. residents can join the call for accountability by sending a written statement on this hearing by July 20 at 5 p.m., when the public record will close. A third and final hearing on this bill will happen after the council’s summer recess. In the meantime, D.C. residents can contact the staff and members of the Council on Housing and Community Development here.