D.C. Council bill smoothes access to public records

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Ward 3 Council member and GW Law School professor Mary Cheh said a new bill will smooth out kinks when citizens request public records, and will be an updated version of a bill she tried to pass before.

Two D.C. Council members want to make the city’s government records and actions more transparent.

At-large Council member David Grosso and Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh introduced a bill to the Council last week that would require city agencies to proactively publish more government information that previously had to be requested. The Council members said they hope the bill increases openness and transparency about D.C.’s government actions.

The bill would decrease the need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which can be a slow-moving process. Citizens can file an FOIA request for public records and data about a city agency’s actions and decisions. Most government records are available to the public through an FOIA request, unless the request falls under an exemption, which could include things like information about a law enforcement investigation.

The bill, which was also co-sponsored by at-large Council member Anita Bonds, would also increase reporting requirements for FOIA requests in D.C., requiring D.C. FOIA responders to give more applicable information in their responses and provide more details when a request is denied. Because of the increased reporting requirements, the bill would also expand the deadline for a response from 15 to 20 days.

Cheh, who is also a professor at the GW Law School, said she introduced a similar bill years ago, but only some parts of it passed. She said Grosso did her a favor by introducing the bill last week because the bill incorporates parts of her other bill that weren’t passed the first time around.

“I think the more openness, the better,” Cheh said.

She said the bill was a response to people telling her that D.C. employees wouldn’t adequately respond to their FOIA requests. She said workers sometimes have responded to FOIA requests with an “information overload” instead of giving the relevant information.

“Unless you have documents and the documents are responsive to what you’re seeking, all this stuff is lost to the public,” she said.

Grosso said in his opening statement when he introduced the bill that the bill should also keep government leaders accountable for their actions and give out information on government actions more openly.

“This bill establishes in D.C. law the principle that if government information is deemed appropriate to share with one person under a Freedom of Information Act request, it should be shared with everyone and ought to be proactively published,” he said at the Council meeting.

The city launched an online dashboard earlier this month that compiles city statistics on things like employment and population statistics and makes them readily accessible to the public. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the new tool would help economic development in the city by helping people gain access to things like jobs and affordable housing.

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