WHENEVER METRO Board Chairman Jack Evans discusses the transit system’s problems, he inevitably points a finger at the secrecy that has long surrounded the agency. There is, he said recently, a “whole culture of not telling people what is going on.” So it makes no sense that the proposal to create a new multi-state agency to oversee the safety of the system thumbs its nose at the public’s right to know. If this new agency is to have any chance at being effective, it is critical that there be public access to its meetings and records.
We first raised the alarm about the failure to guarantee public access to the workings of the proposed commission after draft legislation for the new body was released in May. While we welcomed the fact that officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia were finally, after years of inaction and significant safety lapses, taking steps to establish a new agency with broad investigative and regulatory authority over rail-transit safety, the move to shield the group’s workings from public view was worrisome.
New concerns about secrecy were recently sounded in a letter from open-government advocates to lawmakers in D.C. and the two states. Leaders of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government faulted the draft legislation for alluding to an expectation of openness without mandating public access or providing any mechanism for enforcement.
If this commission is intended to act as a government agency, why exempt it from open-meeting and freedom of information laws? Why allow it to withhold from public view the contents of any investigation report, even after it has been delivered to the mayor and two governors? How can the public have confidence that Metro is being held accountable if there is no transparency to the process?
The proposed legislation was drafted by officials from the three jurisdictions, and it is unclear who was behind the push for secrecy. Mr. Evans, also a D.C. Council member, told us he thinks the exemptions are “just a terrible idea” and that he will push for changes when the matter comes up later this year before the council. We hope he succeeds and that lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia follow the lead toward openness.