DC voters approve new open records, meetings initiative
WASHINGTON, D.C.–In early November, District of Columbia voters approved, by a 4-to-1 margin, a controversial proposal that creates greater public access to records and meetings involving commercial real estate taxes.
The adopted proposal, known as Initiative 51, requires that all proceedings of the Board of Real Property Assessment and Appeals be open to the public and that all information presented to the board be available for public inspection. This gives the public unprecedented access to information involving income, expenses and cash flow associated with commercial real estate. The law also permits any D.C. taxpayer to challenge the real estate tax assessment of any commercial property owner and to intervene in tax assessment appeals before the board.
Initiative 51 will establish a public advocate’s office to advise residents and taxpayers of their rights under the law, conduct investigations and represent public interests before the board.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors and others who have been fighting for better working conditions from D.C. commercial property owners, was the driving force behind Initiative 51. The union claimed that the board frequently under-assessed property taxes on commercial property, thus cheating the city out of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
But others, including many real estate owners, business leaders, Mayor Marion Barry, and The Washington Post, opposed the initiative, arguing that it was “anti-business” because it will raise the costs of doing business in the city. In addition, the law will require commercial building owners to disclose confidential financial information including the details of individual commercial leases. Business leaders plan to take their objections to the D.C. Council and Congress, which have the right to review and amend the law under the city’s “Home Rule” charter. (Initiative 51, Real Property Assessment and Tax Amendments Act)