Meet the New Council Rules, Same As the Old Council Rules: The Public is Still Left in the Dark
Much has changed in DC government with the start of the New Year, but, unfortunately, transparency in the DC Council’s operations is not among them. On Monday, the Council, now led by Chairman Kwame R. Brown, held its first meeting of the new legislative period and approved new council rules. These rules dictate how the Council operates, legislates, and organizes for the next two years.
For the most part, to borrow from The Who, it’s a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Council made very few changes to the rules from the previous session, despite suggestions from DCFPI and other groups to improve transparency in operations. This means the body still falls short in giving the public timely access to important legislative documents and decisions.
Some of major issues left unaddressed in the rules approved Monday are:
• 2 A.M. Budget Surprises
The public is given little to no time to see the final budget voted on by the Council. Current practice is to release the budget documents in the wee hours of the morning, just hours before the one—and only—vote on how tax dollars are allocated. It is important for the public to have a chance to see, and weigh in on, changes to how their tax dollars will be spent. (Remember the streetcar fiasco last spring?)
How can the Council improve? As suggested by DCFPI and other groups, the Council should adopt a rule to release the final budget documents at least TWO business days before the vote. A 48 hour waiting period, so to speak.
• Open Meetings
The Council passed an open meetings law in December, but largely excluded themselves from the rules they require most other government bodies to follow. At the December vote, the Council said they would adopt their own rules for open meetings.
It seems the Council rules passed on Monday will keep the body’s practice of only having to meet in public when “official action is taken.” This appears to mean that the Council can continue to meet behind closed doors and conduct debate on important public policy, like budget and tax issues, as long as they do not take a vote. DCFPI and other groups have asked to open these important discussions to the public. Former Council Chairman, now Mayor, Vince Gray decided to televise these meetings, and it seems with the adoption of the rules on Monday this will remain a decision left up to the Chairman.
How can the Council improve? Chairman Brown and the Council should not exempt themselves from open government rules they require other bodies to follow.
• No Timely Access to Emergency Legislation and Amendments
Right now, little information is given to the public about emergency legislation before a vote is taken, and that’s a problem because emergency legislation takes effect immediately. According to the rules, emergency legislation must be filed three business days before a legislative session. But that doesn’t mean the public gets to see it. The current rules state that the public is only required to get notice of the emergency, but isn’t entitled to the full text of the bill the Council will vote upon.
Amendments to legislation are even less transparent. Amendments can be introduced without public notice and voted on without giving the public a chance to see what is being amended. If you have ever watched one of the Council’s legislative sessions, you know that this can be frustrating. Sometimes the amendments aren’t even put in writing, which means the public has little understanding of the final language of a bill before it becomes law.
How can the Council improve? Of course, every instance where an amendment might be needed can’t be anticipated, but a general principle should be that amendments should be in writing and available to the public at the same time the members receive them. The same principle should be applied to emergency legislation as well.
Chairman Brown has elevated the position of the chief technology officer within the Council to an appointed officer position. That seems to indicate that he is placing a greater emphasis on improving the technology and communications of the Council. It would be great if that person could start by improving transparency of the council operations and public access to information. While the Council rules are usually only voted on one time, there is opportunity to make changes to them going forward. A good guiding principle for the Council rules should be that when a member receives notice of legislation or hearings, or copies of bills or amendments, so should the public.