Open Government is Good Government
For those who watched the DC Council’s budget vote on May 26, the need for greater transparency in the budget process might be obvious. For those who didn’t have the chance to watch, here’s a highlight reel:
- A final draft of the budget was not put together until 2 am the morning of the vote, because there is no Council rule requiring the final budget document to be made public in advance. So when council members arrived to decide our city’s spending for next year, they had not had time to thoroughly read the bill they were voting on.
- There was a last-minute scramble to find money for critical safety net programs that still remained on the chopping block. From the dais, council members expressed confusion about what had and had not been funded, and where the money was coming from.
- That confusion was highlighted most during the frenzied, now-you-see it-now-you-don’t-now-you-see-it again approach to funding the District’s streetcar program. Supporters of the streetcar program did not realize that nearly $50 million in funding had been cut from the budget until an hour before they were scheduled to vote. The approved cuts were later reversed.
There were a few positive advances: Chairman Gray decided to televise two days of budget negotiations after a coalition of groups, including DCFPI, sent a sign-on letter asking him to make all full-council budget meetings open to the public. Until last year, these important sessions— in which council members discuss revenue and spending reductions— had been held in private. Last year, Chairman Gray allowed only members of the press to witness certain parts of the negotiations.
The single-lens camera in the Chairman’s conference room this year did allow the public to hear some of the questions and answers council members had about the fiscal year 2011 budget. Yet virtual participation is not full participation. We remain supportive of the Chairman’s efforts to televise and record the proceedings for those who cannot attend, but we believe the public should be able to witness the discussions in person. That’s why we are very supportive of the Open Government is Good Government bill introduced by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, which would make any meeting with a quorum of council members open to the public. A hearing on the bill will be held next month.
Until the rules change, the natural tendency of the Council will be to make budget changes up until the last minute. A common-sense provision would be to have a two- or three-day review period in which a final draft of the budget is circulated to council members as well as the public. That way, members can choose to carefully read and examine the budget and craft written amendments if they feel changes are necessary. It also gives DC residents a chance to weigh in one last time on how their tax dollars will be spent.