D.C. Council's Behind-Closed-Doors Budget Decisions

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

THE D.C. COUNCIL was able to shut the public out of its recent budget deliberations because supposedly, it wasn't really taking action. Never mind that all the big decisions were being made behind those closed doors. That such an outrage could occur is the latest example of why the District is viewed as having one of the most worthless open-meetings laws in the country and why that law needs to be changed.

As long as D.C. officials don't enact or make rules or regulations, or take other official actions, they are allowed to meet privately in work sessions. So last week council members conducted, without a public audience, marathon meetings to work out budget and revenue decisions to deal with the city's gaping budget hole. It was there that council members came up with ideas to raise gasoline and cigarette taxes, cut funding for schools and abolish earmarks. When the council met publicly on Friday, it was essentially to rubber-stamp the decisions that council members made behind closed doors.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) allowed members of the media to attend, which is certainly better than the alternative. Why, though, should the media have a privilege denied to the public? More importantly, access to the conduct of the public's business is a right, not a privilege; it should be a matter of law and not subject to the whim of whoever is sitting in the chairman's seat. As a broad coalition of community groups wrote to Mr. Gray in a vain effort to be admitted to the budget sessions, "making all full-Council sessions accessible to the public is critical to having an open and transparent government in the District of Columbia." An effort to prohibit closed-door meetings was made in 2005, but with Mr. Gray as the deciding vote, the bill was sent back to committee to die. Mr. Gray said he was committed to open meetings but that the legislation -- which The Post and other news organizations helped to develop -- had problems and that he would work on the issue when he became chairman. The public, still shut out, is waiting.

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