June 30, 2012

TWO MEMBERS of the D.C. Council have resigned in disgrace; a third’s chief of staff was convicted of taking a bribe; last week a fourth reported suspected embezzlement from his campaign fund; and the mayor is believed to be under federal investigation.

Not the ideal time to limit public access to information about D.C. government, you might think. But then you wouldn’t be thinking like the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is thinking.

City officials want the council to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to give the government more time to respond to requests for information and to exempt more types of records from disclosure. A statement from Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, whose office drafted the legislation, said that the changes are necessary because of abuses that are hurting the effectiveness of government. “Under current law, the courts may not take into account the volume or reasonableness of a request or provide any flexibility in the time allotted to respond to a request no matter how massive or broad the demand,” the statement said.

But city law already contains a number of checks on unreasonable or excessive requests. An agency need only make “reasonable efforts” to search for and produce records, a request must “reasonably describe” the documents sought, and the city can require the requester to pay for costs, even in advance. The law also allows extensions of time, and in our experience the District has never been bashful about missing FOIA deadlines.

There’s even less justification for broadening the categories of documents that can be exempted. If there’s been any problem with the city’s FOIA laws, it is not that records are being disclosed that shouldn’t be. Yet, this bill would broaden exemptions that have been working well since the 1970s . Authorities would be able to shield investigatory records if release “could reasonably be expected” to have negative consequences, rather than the current standard of “would.” It would remove the harm element from the trade secrets exemption so that records could be withheld even if disclosure would cause no harm. It creates an unnecessary exemption for records related to litigation.

If the District is overwhelmed by FOIA requests, it is largely to blame. It forces citizens to file FOIA requests for information that should be available on Web sites and that other jurisdictions provide on request. Instead of walling off more information, why not — as the city has promised to do — invest in software and other resources to assist in processing requests? In 2010 the city created an Office of Open Government, patterned after the federal Office of Government Services, to assist in information requests and to referee disputes. Yet the office isn’t up and running — and the mayor proposes to rein in its authority.

Instead of watering down the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Gray should live up to his promise of “transparent and open” government and fix the deficiencies that make it hard for the public to get information that is its due.