D.C. Council considers revamping FOI law
Editor’s note: The District of Columbia City Council on Dec. 20 adopted several amendments to the city’s Freedom of Information Act. The changes extend openness requirements to electronic records, make government-contractor records subject to the act, and set penalties for officials who violate the act. The amendments must still go before Mayor Anthony Williams, a control board and Congress.
In his job helping journalists in Washington, D.C., gain access to
district and federal records, Robert Becker said he’s learned that the
district’s version of the Freedom of Information Act operates in two ways:
erratically and slowly.
“My sense is that it functions erratically because the individuals
charged with implementing it are not aware of its provisions, are inadequately
trained in dealing with public disclosure of government information, or have
FOI as but one of several duties within the agency,” said Becker, who handles
FOI issues for the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
But Becker, who testified recently before a D.C. Council committee on
government openness, said proposals to revamp the district’s
freedom-of-information practices should alleviate many headaches. He urged the
district leaders to approve measures that would open more records and impose
stronger sanctions on those who stifle openness.
District council members are considering a number of amendments to the
district’s Administrative Procedure Act, designed to improve disclosure of
electronic documents, to extend portions of the act to private contractors
performing government business, and to beef up penalties against employees who
hinder freedom-of-information requests.
Katherine Mills, an assistant to Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, who
offered the amendments, said the proposal mirrors language found in the federal
Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996. The act would ensure that
records found on computers or in some electronic form would remain open,
particularly if they would be open in printed form.
The amendments, if passed, would also penalize anyone who knowingly
and willfully violates the act with a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100.
They would also require Mayor Anthony Williams to compile an annual report on
district agencies’ efforts to comply with freedom-of-information requests.
Testimony in an Oct. 12 hearing before the council’s committee on
government operations revealed numerous difficulties in securing district
Washington Post counsel
Carol Melamed said that Post
reporter Katherine Boo, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for stories on
neglect and abuse in group homes for mentally disabled people, faced formidable
obstacles in securing correct information for her articles. An initial record
request revealed 11 deaths in such housing projects over the past three years,
but further research and requests revealed more than 100 deaths.
Rebecca Daugherty, who directs the FOI Service Center for the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
Press, said such problems point to weak compliance with the D.C. law. The
law itself, she said, isn’t especially weak — Pennsylvania’s and New
Jersey’s are weaker — but has been rendered ineffective by bureaucratic
Becker described the sanctions proposal as a good start but said the
initial costs of litigation can be prohibitive for most FOI requesters. He said
the amendments might improve the situation, but he encouraged district leaders
to form an autonomous office to review freedom-of-information efforts.
Five states, he noted, have such offices.
“I believe an office can be established to provide advice and training
here at reasonable cost,” Becker said.
Paul McMasters, First Amendment
ombudsman of The Freedom Forum, said First Amendment freedoms don’t have
credence without a citizen’s right to acquire information about government
policies and operations.
“Open government is a work in progress,” McMasters told the council
during the hearing. “If the original authors of the federal FOIA had the
foresight and power, they most likely would have more clearly stated the
fundamental principles of access and made them ironclad.”