Open Government Is Overrated

By Carol Schwartz
Monday, July 10, 2006

Yes, I helped deny a quorum to mark up the D.C. Open Government Meetings Act [editorial, July 1], and I make no apologies for doing so. The ability to deny a quorum is a legal tool -- akin to Congress's filibuster -- available to Council members as they go about their job of serving District residents. In this case, my purpose was to protect them from irresponsible legislation. (And it worked, somewhat: After twice being denied a quorum, the committee chairman finally presented a substitute bill that at least reduced from $1,000 to $100 the fine for three committee members discussing business outside an open meeting and eliminated the criminal penalties.)

Nonetheless, my using a perfectly legal tool to try to bring about a better law was labeled "disgusting and cowardly" by this newspaper -- quite strong words. Considering that The Post has a vested interest in getting this bill passed, its statement didn't surprise me. After all, Post representatives helped write the bill. And of course a newspaper wants unfettered access to all government meetings. The Post's support for this bill is both self-serving and a conflict of interest. I find its intimidating tone and bullying tactics to merit the same strong words it used on me: "disgusting and cowardly."

With this legislation, no consideration was given to the fact that the ability to hold some meetings out of the public eye can work to benefit the public. Take the rent control issue, for example. In an effort to reach a compromise that would ensure that we protect our residents without forcing landlords to stop providing rental housing, closed meetings were held to see if the parties could reach a compromise.

If we had been required to make those meetings open to the public and abide by the stringent notice requirements, the parties would not have been able to negotiate effectively without feeling that they had to censor themselves. We wouldn't have the rent control bill we now have, one that has the support of both renters and landlords.

The overreaching "open government" legislation is before us today only because of electioneering and press-pandering. It is not needed; we already have a law stating that no official action can be taken unless it happens at an open public meeting. Just turn on cable Channel 13 and you can watch these open meetings ad nauseam.

Of course, in this election year, we are going to go there whether we need to or not. But it's important that we do so in a constructive manner that does not hamstring our ability to do our work, and do it as amicably as possible.

The D.C. Council, unlike other legislatures, is under constant scrutiny from Congress. It could be undone if it aired too much of its dirty linen in public. Anyone who watches our numerous open meetings and endless public hearings knows we are capable of doing some yelling and screaming. But not being able to freely and candidly discuss issues among ourselves on occasion will inhibit our ability to get things done on behalf of those we represent. I don't want to pass my colleagues in the hallway and be able to discuss little more than the weather without worrying that we are breaking the law. For us to be unable to talk -- not vote, not act, but talk -- is insane.

One suggestion for improving our open-meetings law should be implemented. A 1999 study by the public advocacy group D.C. Appleseed made 33 recommendations to strengthen council operations. Only one dealt with the District's open meetings law. It suggested that for closed breakfast meetings the council provide minutes of any discussion of items on the agenda of the public meeting to follow. At the council's next legislative meeting, I will have amendments that would make this change, as well as others, to expand our law without crippling our government.

The writer, a Republican, is an at-large member of the D.C. Council.

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