Many District of Columbia residents are curious about the inner workings of the government, including whether corruption, nepotism, and cronyism is occurring. However, more than forty years after its enactment, questions still remain about how much transparency is too much transparency when it comes to government policies and programs. Local judges, DC agency heads, the Mayor’s office and the City Council all struggle with the prospect of revealing enough information to achieve openness with the public while at the same time protecting information that might harm the government and its community partners.
Generally speaking, if you want to know exactly how Hines Interests LP won the right to redevelop the Walter Reed Medical Campus, the number and location of violent crimes in your neighborhood or District-wide, which business got the contract to rehabilitate the neighborhood library including their plan for the facility, and exactly how much the District spends annually on litigation, you need only turn to DC’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).
DC’s FOIA statute provides for public access to District government records. Under DC’s FOIA statute, you may be entitled to receive books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, and/or recordings from a Public Body. You may also be entitled to receive other documentary materials prepared, owned, or used by a public body (regardless of physical form characteristics) as long as it is in the possession of, or retained by a public body.
Recently, a hot-button issue nationwide and in the District has been the use of body cameras for law enforcement officers. Through DC FOIA, District residents may request body camera footage from the Metropolitan Police Department. The DC FOIA statue allows the government 25 days to respond to a request for body worn camera video. The response period begins on the date the request is actually received by the FOIA Officer for the public body that maintains the requested records.
While some exceptions apply, generally all public bodies within the District government are required to disclose public records upon proper request, including:
- The Mayor;
- Any subordinate or independent agency, including officers, employees, offices, departments, divisions, and commissions;
- The Council of the District of Columbia
The District government does not maintain a central FOIA office. Instead, each District agency responds to requests for its own records. A FOIA request may be submitted online via the DC government Public FOIA Portal. Requests may also be submitted by mail, fax, or email to the FOIA Officer for the agency whose records you want to obtain. The District government maintains a list of agency FOIA Officers at the DC Open Government website.
The District’s FOIA statute requires a response in 15 business days. The government is required to meet this deadline despite the size of the FOIA request, large or small, since there is no formal system for separate handling of larger or smaller FOIA requests. The FOIA statute allows the Public Body to extend the time for responding to a FOIA request by an additional 10 business days in “unusual circumstances.” However, if you are requesting body worn camera footage from MPD, the Department may extend the normal 25-day response time for an additional 15 days. The statute also permits the Court to award attorney’s fees if you hire an attorney to pursue a FOIA request on your behalf.
Transparency is the key to good governance. In order to hold public officials accountable for their actions, District residents must seek information. FOIA is a window into the inner-workings of the government.
Darrell Chambers is the Founder of The Chambers Firm, LLC, handling employment law, wills & estates, criminal defense, small business consultation, and contract matters in DC and Maryland. Darrell resides in Ward 4 and the Firm is focused on bringing quality, affordable legal services to the residents of Ward 4. Darrell’s DC office is located on Capitol Hill and his Maryland office in Silver Spring, however, Darrell regularly meets with clients in Brightwood, Shephard Park, Takoma, Petworth and the surrounding Ward 4 neighborhoods. Darrell can be reached at www.chambersfirmdcmd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog is for information purposes only, is not intended as full and complete legal advice on any topic, and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader or any other person or entity and The Chambers Firm, LLC.