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Update: D.C. Council drops FOIA changes from budget proposal

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  1. Freedom of Information

Update (5/16/2019): The proposed changes to the District’s Freedom of Information Act, which sparked opposition from the Reporters Committee, D.C. Open Government Coalition and others, were dropped from the budget proposal late Monday night on the eve of the D.C. Council’s public meeting about the budget on Tuesday. We thank Chairman Mendelson for listening to our concerns and removing the provision, and we look forward to working with the Council on these and similar amendments.

 

A proposal recently unveiled by the Council of the District of Columbia would burden people making requests under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act by setting restrictive requirements on requests and allowing disclosure only for information relating to “official business.”

The proposal narrows the definition of a public record subject to disclosure, improperly burdens requesters by requiring them to “describe with particularity” what they are seeking, and seems to require the public to submit only requests that an agency could handle within FOIA’s time limits.

In a letter sent today to the D.C. Council, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press expressed concern that any “changes to FOIA — a law of fundamental importance to citizens of the District — should not be made without the public being given a meaningful opportunity to be heard.” This is particularly true where, as here, the proposed changes will curtail public access to information that would shed light on the use of taxpayer resources by District officials and employees.

At a time when serious questions are being raised about the use of official resources and time for private gain, the Reporters Committee argues the Council should be leaning into greater transparency about its operations. Instead, this proposal moves to shield more of public officials’ behavior from public view.

If the Council seeks to propose changes to FOIA, those changes should be proposed in a standalone bill, not buried in a 160-page budget document. The Reporters Committee is urging Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to suspend further consideration of the proposal until it receives a more thorough public hearing.

A vote is expected tomorrow. Read the full letter here.