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DC Council Considers Bill Exempting ANCs From FOIA Mandates

by Nena Perry-Brown

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Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC) are DC’s neighborhood-level government bodies, wherein elected representatives volunteer their time to review and issue recommendations on various initiatives that affect their community. Everything from liquor licenses to zoning and economic development projects fall under the ANC’s purview,and they also provide another layer of accountability for city constituents. If you read UrbanTurf regularly, you know that we attend a lot of ANC meetings around the city.

As part of what was meant as a good-faith effort to make ANCs more efficient and empowered since their inception in 1975, the DC Council Committee on Housing and Community Development considered the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Omnibus Amendment Act of 2016 yesterday. But as the bill’s second public hearing displayed, the bill still leaves more than a little to be desired when it comes to ensuring the aforementioned accountability.

The ANC Omnibus Act intends to clarify some of the language and terminology from the 1975 version, while also creating standards for when and how ANC duties should be performed. The bill emphasizes both the necessity that ANCs provide the public with more information further ahead of time, and DC agencies and project applicants are proactive and timely in their involvement with the ANC.

Of the witnesses who testified on Wednesday, most agreed with the goal of making it easier for citizens to run for ANC seats and strengthening the commission’s ability to ensure that their notices are given “great weight” by DC agencies. Others pointed out that some clauses in the bill, while in good faith, are either unrealistic or raise questions of impropriety, such as the requirement that ANCs inform applicants of their inclusion on agendas 14 days prior to public meetings and the idea to offer menial stipends to commissioners.

However, one of the most contentious provisions of the bill includes the reclassification of ANCs from being considered agencies, and therefore exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) transparency mandates.

Executive director of the Office of ANCs Gottlieb Simon testified that FOIA requests had been few and far between until five years ago, when it eventually became necessary to standardize a response to commissioners who needed further direction after such solicitations. Simon has served as a de facto FOIA liaison in multiple instances, and one of the main reasons that the exemption was included in the bill is because the FOIA process can be burdensome for ANC commissioners, who serve voluntarily.

“Although it may be frustrating for ANCs to comply with FOIA, each are statutorily bound to maintain and make public all records generated in the course of their duties as elected officials,” Traci Hughes, director of the Office of Open Government testified. “The law is unwavering on this point.” Hughes offered as a solution the creation of a centralized ANC portal that will serve as a one-stop shop for all agendas, minutes, documents, audio-visual files and other administrative records associated with each ANC meeting.

The measure to purportedly protect the ANC bureaucracy from the rigorous work required to respond to FOIAs echoes the recent DC Court of Appeals decision siding with Friends of McMillan in forcing the DC Council to release pertinent documents on the McMillan Sand Filtration site redevelopment.

The Council will revisit the bill after the summer recess.

See other articles related to: anc

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dc_elected_officials_foia_duties_again_on_the_table_with_proposed_anc_bill/11437

3 Comments

  1. Nathaniel Martin said at 4:13 pm on Thursday July 7, 2016:

    I am concerned about any effort that might reduce the accountability of the ANCs. In some cases, these bodies have become impediments to reasonable progress in their neighborhoods. I think they are sometimes an outlet for petty tyrants whose goal is to exercise power rather than truly to serve the public’s interests.

  1. Eric Schultz said at 9:11 am on Friday July 8, 2016:

    ANCs should not be excluded from FOIA requests. The Friends of McMillan Park had to fight the city for 18 months to get the official government emails sent and recieved by ANC Comissioner Dianne Barnes. She was using her personal email to conduct official government business. Comissioner Barnes was working directely with the McMillan Park developers to overcome the community opposition to the development. She stated that she had lots of community support for the development when in fact she only had 8 letters of support. Our elected officials can not be trusted and should not be exempt from FOIA requests.

  1. Don Padou said at 9:20 pm on Friday July 8, 2016:

    I am the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the suit against an ANC

    ANCs should not be exempted from FOIA because FOIA is one of the few tools the public has to hold ANCs accountable.  The FOIA case mentioned in the article revealed that a commissioner was in serious discussions with the McMillan developers – discussions that she kept secret from her constituents.  The FOIA case revealed that the commissioner – to put it politely – grossly exaggerated the number of letters she had received that supported her position.

    Another FOIA case revealed that ANC 2F was holding secret meetings to discuss – and, ultimately support – a liquor licensee holders attempt to turn his café into a night club.

    Another FOIA case revealed that an ANC 5A commissioner was lying about what occurred at a meeting that she held.

    A soon to be filed FOIA case will reveal that a financially troubled ANC is still grossly mismanaging its money.

    These sorts of problems go back many years.  When I was an ANC commissioner (ANC 5A) it was common practice for the ANC to hold secret meetings, decide on the Commissions position without public input and then hold a sham public meeting where the outcome was preordained.  When pressed about this practice, the Chairwoman said that the ANC had to decide on its position in secret so that it could “show unity to the community” at the public meeting.  She clearly went to the Soviet school of representative democracy.

    ANCs are given significant powers to speak for their constituents.  ANCs cannot hold the power and expect to avoid the responsibility or accountability.  It is true that some ANCs find it difficult to respond to FOIA requests.  Most of any such difficulty arises from the ANCs’ practices.  It is hard to comply with FOIA when you are holding secret meetings or are deliberately seeking to hide documents.  It is easy to respond to FOIA requests for ANCs that are transparent and are not trying to hide their actions from constituents.

    ANCs receive more than enough money to hire the part time staff that would be necessary to respond to infrequent FOIA requests. 

    Don Padou
    Attorney-at-Law

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