An eclipse, D.C.-style

Saturday, December 18, 2010; 6:26 PM

MEMBERS OF THE D.C. Council who want the body to operate under its own rules rather than be bound by a proposed new open-meetings law say that they will stay true to its spirit of sunshine. They belittle concerns that the council will try to do the public's business behind closed doors. But no sooner did they offer those assurances than they moved to shield council committees - where the bulk of business is conducted - from requirements of the new law.

The council gave unanimous, tentative approval to a bill that would overhaul the city's outdated open-meetings law; a final vote is set for Tuesday. There is much good in the measure. It extends the umbrella of openness to government boards that had become accustomed to secrecy, abolishes the loophole that let officials meet behind closed doors as long as no "official" vote was taken and establishes an open-government office. However, the council continues to have a blind spot about including itself under the full provisions of the law. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association (of which The Washington Post is a member) has objected to loopholes in the bill.

By allowing the council to write its own rules, the measure gives the legislature a huge out. Witness last week's debate when only two council members - Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) - favored an amendment to include council committees in the bill's requirement. The council's Web site reports that much of the council's work is done in standing and special committees, and even the weak current law requires committees to meet in public when a quorum is present. Nonetheless, council members argued that this would restrict council members in their interactions with each other, a silly notion undermined by the fact that there is an exception in the proposal for chance or social encounters.

What emerged as council members agreed with Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) about the need for the council to have a "freer hand" was their unwillingness to abide by the rules they think others should follow.

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