How We Can Hold the D.C. Council Accountable
By Kathy Patterson
The recent uproar over D.C. Council members’ contracts and earmarks, as well as budget decisions being made behind closed doors, highlights the need for greater accountability on the part of the D.C. Council. That said, the rest of us have a role in holding our elected and appointed officials accountable for how, when and why they spend our tax dollars, including hiring. Here are the tools at our disposal:
- Employees’ names and salaries are public information. The city’s Freedom of Information (FOI) law states that “the names, salaries, title and dates of employment of all employees and officers of a public body” are “specifically made public information, and do not require a written request for information.” Citizens can go to the D.C. Council Secretary’s office at the Wilson Building and ask for the council’s staff name and salary list, and, if necessary, cite, D.C. Code Section 2-536. This may come as news to some council staffers — and even council members — but it’s the law nevertheless.
- Council members must approve committee staff members. In his July 11 op-ed column, Post columnist Colbert I. King quoted D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray as saying that each D.C. Council member is considered an “independent personnel authority,” and that is correct as far as it goes. But many employees work for committees, and though committee chairmen select staff members, committee members must approve them. The city’s personnel law states: “The respective committees of the Council shall approve the appointment of each committee staffperson” (D.C. Code Section 1-604.6). There is, thus, a shared accountability for who works for committees — shared by four or five other council members.
- Contracts are public information. Through the same Freedom of Information law provision, “information in or taken from any account, voucher, or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies” is, explicitly, public information. Again, the secretary’s office is the repository for contracts, and any resident has a right to ask to see council contracts — or contracts let by any other agency of the D.C. government. The same section of D.C. law also requires that the records listed as available without written request and created after Nov. 1, 2001, must be posted on the Web site of government agencies that have a Web site. (The council’s Web site is at www.dccouncil.us.)
- The council is subject to the city’s FOI law. Through amendments I introduced in 2000, the council added itself to the agencies covered by the law. And the D.C. law begins, “the public policy of the District of Columbia is that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” The presumption is that all government documents are available to the public, and the law guarantees residents added protections whenever a government official holds something back.
Additional accountability tools are needed. Here are a few options:
- An open-meetings law. The city has the worst open-government law in the country, according to the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press. Council member Vincent Orange and I introduced legislation in 2005 to pry open D.C. processes, but the bill was narrowly returned to committee, on a 7-6 vote, in July 2006. We both left the council at the end of that year, and the issue has not been raised again. Perhaps that will change.
- The D.C. Open Government Coalition. This is a new effort just coming into being — and though it is still in an organizational phase, the coalition has produced a citizen’s guide to the local Freedom of Information Act. It is likely that the new effort — I serve on the founding board — will address open records and meetings and other accountability measures being used in other jurisdictions.
Finally, there is this ultimate accountability test: the 2010 elections. I encourage voters to pay careful attention to the council’s actions over the coming weeks and months, not just in reacting to the issues swirling around D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) but also in the equally difficult task of crafting a fiscal 2010 budget that reflects the revenue downturn.
The writer represented Ward 3 on the D.C. Council from 1995 through 2006.
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