Holding DC’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability accountable to thinking before doing
After DC’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) declined to re-appoint the District’s chief open government enforcer for a second term, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with BEGA and the Executive Office of the Mayor for relevant emails to find out more about what really happened. Was it retaliation for stirring the pot? Were BEGA board members responding to political pressure from the Mayor? Or did BEGA have a legitimate basis for seeking a new person for the position?
What was in the emails…
As The Washington Post reported based on my FOIA requests, the Mayor’s staff were hostile to Traci Hughes’s attempts to get DC boards in violation of the Open Meetings Act to follow the law. But that was about it. The few emails to or from BEGA board members were 100% professional.
Not only was there no smoking gun in the FOAI’d emails, which span from July 1, 2017 to the date of my FOIA request, there was no evidence that BEGA’s board members had put any thought at all into the decision to not re-appoint Traci Hughes until Chairperson Tameka Collier testified before the DC Council in February that BEGA sought a director for the open government office whose performance could be held to account.
Did BEGA review Hughes’s performance?
BEGA’s staff attorney Jack Grimaldi, who kindly took the time to discuss BEGA’s decision-making process in a phone call with me, said the board last discussed the issues underlying their decision not to reappoint Hughes in open board meetings in early 2017 and then as a part of subsequent conversations with the Mayor’s staff and the Council on statutory changes to BEGA’s responsibilities.
But Hughes’s best work came late in the year, and it doesn’t appear that her actual performance was a factor in BEGA’s desire to have a director whose performance they could review.
There is no evidence of discussion by BEGA board members of Hughes’s performance subsequent to Hughes’s ruling in January that the board of United Medical Center broke the law when it voted in secret to close its maternity facility, or subsequent to Hughes’s ruling in October that the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges broke the law, or subsequent to the D.C. Superior Court’s ruling last fall in Hughes’s favor that the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs broke the law.
So what actually happened?
Grimaldi told me that BEGA’s decision regarding Hughes was basically just among the routine business of the board. Between my conversation with Grimaldi and Collier’s testimony, what I understand to have happened was basically that the board wanted someone that they could hold accountable to performance goals and simply didn’t feel an obligation to retain the incumbent — and so that was that for Hughes. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt on that.
(Grimaldi said BEGA had other concerns about ethics and open meetings enforcement being housed in the same government agency, and to be sure even the DC Open Government Coalition has expressed concern about the open government office being housed within BEGA, so this isn’t really in question, but those issues would remain regardless of who would be director of the open government office.)
But if the board was so concerned about holding the director of the open government office accountable, it’s confounding they didn’t take into account the current director’s actual performance in the seven months before their decision was made. And for a board charged with enforcing the District’s ethics, open meetings, and open records laws, it’s concerning that more wasn’t done to reach the decision in an open and transparent manner.
It’s not to much to ask that the ethics and accountability board show leadership in ethics and accountability. I want to hear from the BEGA board members — all of them, not just BEGA’s chair — how they’ll show leadership in building an open and accountable government. If they can’t do that, they must leave the board.
I’ve posted the emails I received in response to my FOIA request at https://github.com/JoshData/dc-bega-emails. Thanks to long-time civic hacker Albert Bowden for help turning the emails into a chronological browsable web page. Also see my testimony to the Council in February: