The District of Columbia Open Meetings Act
The District of Columbia Open Meetings Act (D.C. Code §§ 2-571-580, effective in March 2011) provides the public with a right of access to meetings of D.C. public bodies. It covers a wide range of meetings, requires publication of advance notice and agenda (including notice of any segment to be closed) and also prompt availability of full records of the proceedings by video or transcript (written minutes are a substitute only if full records are not feasible). The statute also requires a recorded public vote to close any meeting segment and provides a list of the lawful grounds for doing so.
In the Act a “public body” is defined as any government council, including the Council of the District of Columbia, board, commission, or similar entity, including a board of directors of an instrumentality, a board which supervises or controls an agency, or an advisory body that takes official action by the vote of its members convened for such purpose.
It does not include: any D.C. government agency (other than the board which supervises or controls an agency or the board of directors of an instrumentality); D.C. courts; individual charter school governing bodies; the Mayor’s cabinet; staff of public bodies when they meet outside the presence of a quorum of those bodies; or D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
A “meeting” is defined as any gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body, including hearings and roundtables, whether formal or informal, regular, special, or emergency, at which the members consider, conduct, or advise on public business, including gathering information, taking testimony, discussing, deliberating, recommending, and voting. A meeting covered by the act may be held in person, by telephone, electronically, or by other means of communication. The term "meeting" does not include chance or social gatherings (if they’re not held to avoid the provisions of the law) or press conferences.
The independent agency, D.C. Office of Open Government, http://www.open-dc.gov, investigates complaints that a public body is not following the law. The Office is authorized to issue advisory opinions and also to sue for enforcement in D.C. Superior Court. The complaint procedures are in Title 3, Chapter 104, of the D.C. Municipal Regulations and the complaint form is available online. Complaints must be submitted within 60 days of the alleged violation.
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act (D.C. Code §§ 2-531-540) provides for public access to records of the government of Washington, D.C. The act is modeled on the federal FOIA statute and passed originally in 1976 to apply to records of only the D.C. executive branch. It was extended in 2001 to cover records of the legislature, the District of Columbia Council.
There is no central FOIA office in the District government. Each public body responds to requests for its own records. Many DC government agencies (54, or about half) accept requests filed through the DC FOIA portal that uses a vendor's software called FOIAXpress. The portal provides request tracking and a "reading room" or library of selected responses to past requests. All agencies, including the legislature (the DC Council) will accept requests submitted to the agency FOIA Officer. A list is available at the Office of Open Government site.
The statute requires a response in 15 working days. There is no formal system for separate handling of larger or smaller requests or to request expedited processing if a request is delayed.
The statute includes exemptions, generally similar to those in the federal FOIA law.
Denials may be challenged in D.C. Superior Court, and it is not necessary to first use the statute’s other appeal process, to the Mayor. But few cases reach the courts and fewer still result in appellate decisions to make clear what the law means. Thus opinions by the mayor's Office of Legal Counsel on administrative appeals (about 50 decisions per year) are a useful guide to how the executive interprets the law. And the decisions are not routine affirmances; agency FOIA denials are reversed half the time. A searchable archive of decisions is available online.
Fees may be charged; full or partial waivers are available for public-interest and media requests.
As yet, no statute establishes a framework for making D.C. government data public (as in New York City, San Francisco, etc.), though one is under discussion among officials, advocates including the D.C. Open Government Coalition and the civic hacker community. Meanwhile, several D.C. mayors have directed that data be opened up. As a result datasets from District of Columbia executive branch agencies (police, schools, health, etc.) are available online. Formatted data showing agency budgets, staffing and performance are also available.