Buried at the bottom of Washington, D.C.’s 2020 budget report [PDF] is a gift to legislators who value opacity. The so-called “Freedom of Information Clarification Amendment” would make it much more difficult for requesters to obtain the documents they’re seeking.
The amendment to the district’s FOIA law would require requesters to know exactly what documents they’re seeking when they request them. It’s a nearly-impossible bar to hurdle — one that turns FOIA requests into games of Battleship.
“Reasonably describing” means describing with particularity the public records requested by including the names of the sender and recipient, a timeframe for the search, and a description of the subject matter of the public record or search terms to allow a public body to conduct a search and review within the time prescribed pursuant to section 202(c).”.
What this means is requesters seeking communications would need to know both the sender and recipient of emails they’ve never seen or the agency can reject the request entirely. The legislator pushing this says it will stop “fishing expeditions.” But requests are sometimes necessarily “fishing expeditions” because requesters are working blind. They don’t have access to these communications and have no way of knowing how many parties discussed the subject at hand. If this passes, D.C. government agencies will be pressing the “reject” button with increased frequency.
If there’s anything transparent here, it’s the self-interest of the legislators pushing the amendment. One member of the D.C. Council — a Democrat like the councilmember who wrote the amendment — has been the subject of unflattering news coverage based on FOIA requests.
In March, for example, The Washington Post reported that D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) had repeatedly sent business proposals to potential employers in which he offered his connections and influence as the city’s longest-serving lawmaker and chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Evans made those pitches using his government email account, and journalists obtained them through the District’s FOIA law.
Last year, journalist Jeffrey Anderson, also using documents obtained through FOIA, reported that Evans’s son was offered an internship by a digital-sign company that would have benefited from legislation Evans advanced at the council.
Legislators’ own dishonest dealings have often resulted in calls to change public records rules to provide more opacity. Claims are made about “fishing expeditions” and protecting the private lives of legislators but, in reality, the real goal is protecting government employees from the people they serve.
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