What’s Really Happening with Director Hughes and the Office of Open Government?
by Larry Janezich
The Board of Ethic’s intention to take over the independent Office of Open Government (OGG) became clear when, during a DC City Council oversight hearing last Thursday, Board Director Tameka Collier said: “The main issue for the board is we don’t have the authority to tell Director Hughes (Director of the Office of Open Government) “maybe you shouldn’t pursue this.” This bottom line answer came in response to a question asked by CM Silverman: “Can you tell us why Traci Hughes was not reappointed to another term as the head of OGG?”
Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, convened the government oversight hearing; more than two hours were spent discussing the decision of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) to not reappoint Traci Hughes as Director of the Office of Open Government. Citing a refusal to discuss ongoing personnel matters in public, Board Director Collier declined to provide any reasons for the move that related to Traci Hughes’ job performance.
Instead, what became clear over the course of the hearing is that the Board of Ethics wants control of the Office of Open Government, which is in the organizational tree below the Ethics Board, but independent of it. No information was produced that suggested Hughes abused this independence. Instead, Hughes testified that lacking specific guidance from BEGA she carried out her function under the authority delegated to her by law. In keeping with her mandate, Hughes informed BEGA regarding the ongoing operations of her office on a monthly basis. Collier said that it is difficult to advocate for or oversee the Open Government Office when the statute is interpreted as limiting the information to which the Board of Ethics is entitled to” general and courtesy updates from the Director.”
While no failure of performance was alleged, Hughes has recently ruffled the feathers of powerful interests. She challenged the meetings of the United Medical Center Board and the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs, finding both fell short of regulations . Then last October, the open government office found extensive violations of the Open Meetings Law by the DC Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges.
The latter interaction sparked a letter of complaint against Hughes from the Chief Administrative Judge addressed to Collier. According to Collier, the letter “questioned a number of things from her legal analysis to her overall handling of the case or failure to disclose information – perhaps having an ulterior motive for expanding the investigation.” Elsewhere in the testimony, Collier spoke of the frustration she felt for having to take ownership of regulations and procedures her board had not signed off on, noting that advisory opinions of the Office of Open Government are issued under the Ethics Board letterhead.
In November, Collier initiated a phone conversation with the Mayor’s legal counsel to discuss the “structural problem” regarding the relationship between the Board of Ethics and the Office of Open Government. Carroll said she called the structural problem “untenable.”
The fix that emerged after the conversation was a decision not renew Hughes’ contract and to re-write the job description for the top job at the Office of Open Government to make clear that the Ethics Board – according to Collier – “expects to approve regulations ahead of time, the board expects to know what’s going on in agency operations, and expects there to be collaboration with Office of Open Government and sharing of resources for efficiencies.”
Another option would be to seek a “legislative fix,” by finding a way to bolster the independence of the Office of Open Government – Hughes had suggested such a fix, urging that OGG be placed under a new oversight board. But an “executive fix” – the personnel change approach – would keep the open government office under the Ethics Board. And clarifying the new director’s job description to spell out exactly what the Board expects, will effectively put the Open Government Agency under the Ethics Board’s control. It would cease to be an independent watchdog.
Councilmember Allen told Collier he would be happy to look for a way to provide a legislative solution for the structural problem and he said he didn’t see how replacing personnel was the appropriate approach, if indeed there is a structural problem. Collier’s response could be interpreted as “thanks, but no thanks ”: Collier told Allen she was “happy to hear you’ll help with the legislative fix, but part of problem is Hughes – her interpretation of the statute makes us completely hands off.” In the end, Allen appeared to sign off on the Ethics Board’s proposed “executive fix approach”; there was no further discussion of a legislative fix to give the board more independence, nor was any discussion of what it would mean to have the appearance of an independent watchdog without the operational reality of one – namely, a political office dedicated to preserving open meetings provided it did not upset any powerful interests.
Acknowledging earlier testimony supporting Hughes’ work and leadership, notably from two Ward 6 ANC Commissioners – Denise Krepp and Mark Eckenwiler (neither one of whom appeared as representatives of their ANC Boards) – and representatives from both DC Watch and the Legal Committee, DC Open Government, Allen concluded:
“I can’t help but feel that I heard from people who feel trust in city government and that that trust has been frayed and in some cases that trust has been broken. And so I think we will all have work to do to make sure that the public has trust because it is too important not to. And I think there’s clear work ahead of us because my ears were open today and so I certainly heard a lot of residents and neighbors who care deeply about their city and integrity of their government express frustration and concern about that very integrity and a lot of people who work hard in building and maintaining that integrity. So I think we’ll all take that conversation today and map out a path forward.”