Nickles Takes on Transparency

Nickles opposes open government measure

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Thursday, Jun 24, 2010  |  Updated 10:01 AM EDT
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Nickles Takes on Transparency

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles is on a crusade against Councilmember Mary Cheh’s open government initiative.

Nickles says the transparency effort is unnecessary in the gloriously open era of the Fenty administration. That’s transparent nonsense.

"It struck me as a bit absurd," Cheh told the Examiner about Nickles' assertion. "The facts are to the contrary, and pretty much everybody knows this."

Even Fenty’s admirers are concerned by his penchant for secrecy and his adversarial, take-no-prisoners stance regarding the Council. And four years after Fenty promised the "most transparent, most open governmeny" the District has ever seen, Nickles plays the part of consigliere, using the law to keep the critics at bay.

Attorney Roy Morris told the Examiner : "No matter which agency one seeks information from, no matter how simple and straightforward the request, whenever a representative from the Attorney General's Office is involved, the responses are typically overdue, incomplete and unnecessarily obstructionist."

He said getting D.C. government agencies to comply with basic Freedom of Information Act requests is a "Kafkaesque" ordeal.

Cheh's sensible measure would create an Open Government Office with the power to sue any city agency that failed to comply with public records laws. It would also shorten the amount of time agencies have to answer requests for records.

Nickles lamely says that the initiative would be expensive -- which can be said of pretty much any government activity, no matter how necessary or beneficial. He wants the city to go in the opposite direction.

As the Washington Post reports today, Nickles wants the Council to pass legislation giving the Fenty Administration "a ‘safety valve’ of 'unspecified additional time' to respond" to FOIA requests in unusual circumstances.

Under D.C.’s FOIA law, the city has up to 15 days to respond to requests. But the law already permits a 10-day extension when more time is needed.

Since Fenty became mayor, the average number of FOIA requests denied by the city has more than quadrupled. "They use these exceptions to deny anything," said Morris.

Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Kris Baumann said the city expends more effort trying to avoid FOIA compliance than it does answering requests.

Cheh was right when she told Washington City Paper earlier this month, "Fixing our freedom of information laws shouldn't be controversial. ...This reform is one that everyone should embrace."

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