The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council approves measure targeting Bowser administration’s use of WhatsApp

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D) stand under an umbrella outside the Rosedale Recreation Center in Northeast D.C. in May 2021. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
4 min

The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a measure that aims to regulate government employees’ use of WhatsApp and similar messaging services that have options to automatically delete records of conversations, following reports about members of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) administration using the app for government business.

The emergency measure, introduced by D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D), seeks to ensure government communications sent using apps such as WhatsApp — including those that have an auto-delete feature for messages — are subject to Freedom of Information Act laws and are preserved in the public record.

Mendelson said the bill was spurred by a report from Axios D.C. last month, which found that WhatsApp is “widely” used among D.C. government employees for government communications. Government ethics advocates told the outlet that they caution against using WhatsApp and similar apps “unless safeguards are in place to retain communications for FOIA requests.”

“After learning of the use of encrypted messaging apps, by members of the Executive Branch, it is an urgent matter that we boost transparency in District Government,” Mendelson said in a statement introducing the legislation. “I get it that many in government would like to conduct their business in private. But that is contrary to long-standing policy. We value open government. We don’t value auto-delete.”

In a letter to the council ahead of the vote, Bowser said she supported efforts to ensure government records are maintained but noted that the underlying law in question does not appear to apply to the council, which she said was hypocritical. She added that her administration has “had little time to research how to implement this emergency.”

“I am sure you would agree that it would be the height of hypocrisy to update record retention storage requirements for the executive side of the government, while shielding the Council’s communications from public view,” Bowser wrote. She called on Mendelson to extend the legislation’s applicability to the council.

But Mendelson on Tuesday referenced rules the D.C. Council already has in place that govern the use of electronic communications. The rules prohibit messages “designed to disappear after a certain time period,” unless certain steps are taken to ensure they’re preserved in council records.

Md. Gov. Larry Hogan’s messages to state employees self-destruct in 24 hours

In December, The Washington Post reported that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has long used electronic chatrooms that destroy messages in 24 hours to communicate with state employees, which experts said violated the spirit of open-records laws.

A spokesperson for Bowser did not return a request for comment Tuesday about the legislation and the administration’s use of WhatsApp, including whether staff are allowed to use the auto-delete feature.

The council, which conducted a hybrid legislative meeting Tuesday as the body shifts to more in-person operations, also took the first of two votes on a bill Bowser proposed last year that, among other changes, would extend the popular street dining program, known as “streateries,” until December 2023 and allow public drinking in more parts of the city, in hopes of bolstering a hospitality industry that was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill would create a commercial lifestyle-center license that would allow patrons to buy drinks from restaurants and walk around with them in designated areas. It also aims to bring more grocery stores to Wards 7 and 8 by allowing grocers there to sell beer, wine or liquor for up to a quarter of their total sales, so long as they operate in those wards for at least six months before expanding elsewhere in the city.

Among other measures the council approved Tuesday was an emergency bill to allow D.C. Public School teachers and staff to serve on the D.C. State Board of Education; under current law, public school staff are prohibited from serving on the board even though staff at the city’s charter schools can. Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the change will level the playing field in time for the upcoming election.

The legislative body also took the second vote on a bill that would give D.C. Superior Court the ability to seal eviction records in certain circumstances, such as when a landlord withdraws their claim or after a three-year period. The measure was approved unanimously.

“The pandemic has been quite terrible in so many respects, but on the other hand, it gives us the occasion to make some improvements in some areas,” said Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced the measure. “One of them is housing evictions. I’m grateful we had a chance to focus on this and protect people.”

The bill now heads to Bowser’s desk for her signature.