January 6, 2013

THE D.C. COUNCIL has finally decided to stop the insidious practice by its members and staff of using private e-mail to conduct public business. The decision is long overdue, and the new rules are, as the council’s chairman said, “far from perfect.” But the move is a step in the right direction that portends, one hopes, a new seriousness about ethics that will result in other needed reforms.

As part of its organizational meeting last week, the council adopted a rule requiring the use of official government accounts when conducting official government business. By no later than March 1, according to the regulation, council members and employees shall use their government-provided e-mail accounts or take steps to ensure that work sent on personal accounts is “otherwise incorporated into the Council’s records.”

The use by D.C. officials of private e-mail to conduct public business was an end run around public-records laws. It’s heartening to see a willingness to confront the issue, although the rules are likely to need refinement — perhaps through the pending lawsuit by the D.C. Open Government Coalition — to make them as effective as possible.

Unlike the firm policy set out by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in his order last year banning the use by the executive branch of private e-mail accounts for city business, the council’s rule is vague in important areas. For example, it does not define “public business” or what it means to “transact public business,” which could lead to confusion and troublesome interpretations about what types of communications shouldn’t be sent via private e-mail. And, unlike the mayor’s order, which provides for disciplinary action, no sanctions are listed for breaking the rules.

Nonetheless, kudos to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) for opening the council’s term with the right emphasis on transparency and openness. If he is serious about “our government . . . turning the corner,” he will make a priority of the mayor’s comprehensive proposal, which languished in committee last year, to reform the city’s lax and outdated campaign-finance laws.