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D.C. government gets an earful for lack of openness

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Local,Alan Suderman

District government is opaque and unaccountable and has several employees working hard to keep public information out of the hands of the public, a parade of open government advocates, lawyers and union leaders told a D.C. Council committee Monday.

The speakers, who were commenting on Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh's new open government initiative, described the city's current application of public records laws as "ludicrous," "Kafkaesque," and "constant dilatory nonsense."

Many speakers complained that routine requests for information were often ignored or improperly denied by city departments. Those kind of complaints are nothing new and aren't unique to the District.

But the District's problems, Cheh and other speakers said, have only gotten worse under the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who rose to power on a platform of accountability.

The average number of Freedom of Information Act requests wholly denied by the city has quadrupled under Fenty, while the average number of requests has stayed constant to previous administrations, according to figures from Cheh's office.

But Attorney General Peter Nickles said in a memo that records requests are becoming more complex as city resources to answer them are shrinking. He's asking the Council to approve legislation that would allow the city to extend the deadline for answering requests beyond the now-mandated 25 days.

"Judges of the superior court are becoming increasingly unsympathetic to any good faith argument made by the District about its efforts to comply with the [Freedom of Information] Act," Nickles said.

The city has lost a number of cases brought by the Fraternal Order of Police union, which is seeking information regarding police department policies, management bonuses and complaints against individual officers.

Union chief Kris Baumann said the city spends much of its efforts coming up with ways to avoid answering public record requests rather than answering them. He said those tactics cost taxpayers more than lawfully answering requests; the union has been awarded about $100,000 in attorney's fees in FOIA cases, Baumann said.

Cheh's proposed bill would create an Open Government Office, which would advise agencies on public records laws and have the power to sue an agency that failed to comply with the law. She said the office would work as a "gladiator" for the public.

asuderman@washingtonexaminer.com

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