Let’s Celebrate July 4th by Improving DC Council Transparency!

Welcome to the July 4th week, District’s Dime readers. DCFPI hopes you made it through the derecho with power, and we wish you a speedy restoration if not. Independence Day is a time in which we reflect upon our democracy (as well as dust off the grill, watch fireworks and attend our local Capitol Hill and Palisades July 4th parades), so we’ll focus today’s blog on ways we can improve civic engagement in DC government.

As District’s Dime readers know, government transparency is critical to giving residents the ability to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions. Under DC law, most legislation requires proper public notice, a public hearing and two full votes before becoming law. This process gives the public a chance to participate in decisions that will impact their everyday lives. However, some legislation gets fast-tracked through the process, and this is where transparency and public participation can break down.

There are two areas of the legislative process that occur too often with little transparency’amendments to legislation and emergency legislation. Here are the issues, and solutions to make the process better and more transparent:

  • Amendments to Legislation: During debate on a bill before the Council, members sometimes offer amendments that can create substantial changes. Yet often, the public has very little information about these amendments. Unless the amendment is made “in the nature of a substitute”’in which it is a replacement for underlying bill’amendments are not required to be circulated (and even amendments in the nature of a substitute are only required to be circulated to members) or publicly posted prior to a vote on the legislation. 

The Council could improve the transparency and notice of amendments by requiring members to submit amendments in writing to the Council Secretary prior to a full vote by the Council on the measure. The written amendment could be read aloud by the Council Secretary prior to the vote, so members as well as the public are aware of the amendment being voted upon.

  • Emergency Legislation:  Emergency legislation can be necessary when going through the timeline of the normal legislative process would cause hardship for residents or the District. Emergency legislation needs a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority, but it is immediately put into effect with the mayor’s approval. Right now, Councilmembers are required to circulate among themselves the notice and full text of an emergency bill three and two business days before the emergency is being considered, respectively, for a vote. The public is only required to receive notice that an emergency action is being taken, but not the text of the legislation itself.

The Council should require that the text of emergencies be posted in their entirety on the Council’s website for the public at the time the draft of the bill is circulated to the members of the Council.  That way the need to provide transparency to the emergency legislative process can be balanced with the Council’s need to act quickly on an emergency.

These ideas were part of a larger set of transparency suggestions given to the transition team for former Chairman Kwame Brown by a number of organizations, including DCFPI. We hope Chairman Phil Mendelson will consider making these critical changes.

Happy July 4th!