A coalition of open-government advocates is raising concerns that the public could be barred from reviewing records and attending meetings held by a new multistate agency responsible for overseeing the safety of the Metro system.
In May, officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia released draft legislation outlining how the Metrorail Safety Commission, a new oversight body, would operate. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) promised “robust” oversight of the region’s troubled Metro system.
But in a letter sent last week to officials in the three jurisdictions, leaders of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government take issue with some of the language in the bill, saying the proposed legislation offers no guarantee of public access.
The result, coalition members wrote, could mean “transparency only when it suits the Commission, not when it is necessary to serve the public interest.”
“I have no reason to mistrust them, but they are a government entity, and the public should have the ability to monitor them and hold them accountable,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
Added Kevin M. Goldberg, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition: “The problem is, when push comes to shove, there is no guarantee of rights of access to records. You’ve got an agency, a transportation system that people just don’t trust, and one really good way to bring back trust is to be transparent.”
The legislation is expected to be reviewed by the D.C. Council this fall and will be taken up by the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies during their 2017 legislative sessions. All three jurisdictions must approve legislation in order for the commission to be formed.
Goldberg said he received a message from D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and several other council members acknowledging the letter and thanking him for bringing the coalition’s concerns to their attention.
The push to create a new state-based safety oversight committee is part of an effort to beef up scrutiny of Metro’s operations and has been a priority for federal officials, who have been frustrated at what they saw as a lack of action by local jurisdictions. Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal funding from the District, Maryland and Virginia if they failed to create a new oversight body by February 2017.
For years, safety oversight of Metro was handled by a regional panel called the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which included representatives from the District, Maryland and Virginia. But the group had almost no enforcement authority and operated largely out of public view. After several calamities, including a fatal smoke incident in January 2015, the Federal Transit Administration last fall temporarily took over safety monitoring of the rail system, making it the first U.S. subway to be placed under federal oversight.
But the FTA’s ultimate goal is for local officials to resume safety oversight.
The proposed legislation does seek give the commission more authority, including the authority to adopt and enforce Metro safety rules, conduct inspections, order “corrective action plans,” impose citations and fines for noncompliance, issue subpoenas during safety-related investigations, and compel the transit agency to “prioritize spending on safety-critical items.”
But the confidentiality provisions in the proposed 18-page legislation have open-government experts concerned.
The commission “shall not be subject to the freedom of information and open meeting laws” of Virginia, Maryland or the District, the draft says. Instead, the panel would “adopt its own policies” based on a federal public-information statute, the proposed legislation reads.
The legislation also says that the “Commission may withhold from public view the contents of any investigation report prepared, reviewed, or adopted” by the panel. Such reports would be given to the D.C. mayor and the Maryland and Virginia governors, “provided that the confidentiality of such records is maintained” by the three executives.
“Public input — ideally from riders themselves — is going to be necessary to paint the real pictures regarding the Metrorail system and any specific incidents being investigated,” the coalition wrote in the letter to officials in the three jurisdictions. “Beyond that, however, it is the public’s perception of the Commission’s findings and actions, which will be shaped by their perception of whether the process is fair or not; yet the default starting point for public perception will be negative if the public feels it is being shut out.”
Some Metro critics and observers, including U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), also have expressed concern about the privacy provision.
“At this point, transparency and accountability are very much in short supply with Metro,” Connolly said when the agreement was announced in May. “And I am concerned that whatever the intentions are here with the commission, it has the consequence of further eroding public confidence.”