- Posted by: NiquelleAllen
- Jun 22,2021
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FY 2022 BUDGET OVERSIGHT TESTIMONY OF DIRECTOR NIQUELLE ALLEN
Good morning, Chairperson Nadeau and members of the Committee. I am Niquelle Allen, Director of Open Government. I lead the Office of Open Government, which is an office within the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA). Throughout my testimony, I will refer to the Office of Open Government as “OOG” or “the OOG.” I am pleased to discuss the Office of Open Government’s budget needs for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22).
In FY22, the Mayor has proposed a slight increase to our operating budget to reflect salary steps and Fringe benefits. We appreciate the Mayor’s dedication to open government in that her proposed budget did not reflect any cuts to BEGA that would negatively impact OOG. However, OOG requested several budget enhancements that are essential to our mission that I respectfully request that the Council consider adding those funds to BEGA’s FY22. I will start my testimony with a brief discussion of the Office of Open Government’s operations and then explain why the requested funds are needed to support those operations.
District residents have a right to know how their government is spending their tax dollars and exercising the powers the people gave to them. Our work is to ensure they remain informed. The District of Columbia’s open government laws exist to promote an open, transparent, and accountable District of Columbia government. The Office of Open Government aims to ensure that these laws are executed so that the public is able to stay informed about their government’s activities. BEGA’s FY22 Budget must be sufficient to facilitate the Office of Open Government’s ability to ensure that the District of Columbia government’s 30,000 employees understand their record-keeping obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the District of Columbia’s 500 Boards, Commissions, and other public bodies conduct their meetings and maintain their records in a manner that adheres to the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
The Office of Open Government assists the public and agencies with Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act compliance. Here are some common examples of what we do on a monthly basis:
- In January 2021, the office responded to 21 separate requests for advice on FOIA matters via telephone and e-mail. This included a request to review the legality of the language presented on the executive branch’s FOIA portal and provide suggestions to revise it to ensure it complies with law.
- In March 2021, the office responded to 36 separate requests for assistance with OMA matters via telephone and e-mail. This included informal written advice on whether a public body could conduct it votes via email outside of the meeting (we advised this violated the OMA because it denied the public access).
OOG also coordinates legislative and policy efforts on FOIA and the OMA before the Council and speaks to citizens and advocacy groups about open government laws. We also conduct numerous OMA and FOIA training sessions. We participate in and sponsor educational webinars on open government issues. We also write resource materials on open government and transparency issues. OOG maintains a website, open-dc.gov, which houses the District of Columbia’s Central Meeting Calendar, where many of the District’s 500 Boards and Commissions list their meeting notices and annual meeting schedule for public viewing. The website also contains advisory opinions, legal documents, and training materials. OOG maintains a YouTube Channel and Twitter page dedicated to open government issues. Our Information Technology Specialist maintains and develops the website and social media pages and all of our staff assists with the content.
As you know, BEGA has historically been underfunded. Yet, OOG has been able to perform and exceed expectations under my leadership, despite a lean budget. For the first time since our creation, the office has a staff that includes a Director, Chief Counsel, three staff attorneys, and an Information Technology Specialist. I am pleased that we are growing into an office well equipped to exercise our statutory duties.
Each year I have served as Director, I have requested from the Council budget enhancements to complete the Office of Open Government. Piece by piece, the Council has provided the staff and required funding to complete the office and fully equip it to perform its statutory mission. I hope this year will not be the exception.
To that end, I am coming to the Council in FY22 to request an enhancement to BEGA’s FY22 budget complete OOG’s staff by adding a Paralegal Specialist position. The Paralegal Specialist position is a significant and necessary legal staff member who will assist OOG’s attorneys with processing all of our legal requests quickly and more efficiently. Significantly, OOG’s staff is almost exclusively comprised of attorneys and having a paralegal on staff will enhance our ability to avoid legal conflicts of interest in Open Meetings Act litigation because we will have a Paralegal to serve as a fact witness as opposed to an attorney. Rule 3.7, of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit an attorney from representing a client in a matter where the attorney might be called as a witness. In prior OMA litigation, the OOG was fortunate and forced to obtain outside counsel to present this from occurring when our attorney was also required to serve as a witness. Having a Paralegal Specialist on staff would eliminate this issue in future litigation.
Another significant function of our office is to train public bodies on the Open Meetings Act and Parliamentary Procedure. I have worked with the D.C. Office of Film Music and Entertainment to develop a training video on the Open Meetings Act that we look to launch later this year. I have requested a one-time budget enhancement of $20,000 along with a recurring amount of $8,000 for a training portal that will be hosted on open-dc.gov. This training portal will assist with our training load and permit public bodies to receive on-demand Open Meetings Act and Parliamentary Procedure training. Providing this information in a virtual format would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the District’s public bodies and would be a sound investment.
I am also coming before you to advocate for increased funding for the agency as a whole. With respect to BEGA’s administrative operations, we have requested funding for a Chief of Staff that will report to both Directors and a Human Resource staff position. BEGA requires an effective administrator to ensure that agency functions professionally and smoothly. Before FY2018, the Office of Open Government was completely independent. When the Council enacted our enabling legislation to bring us under the BEGA Board’s oversight with the Office of Government Ethics, that created the necessity of establishing an administrative structure to serve as link between BEGA’s two offices to ensure the smooth flow of information and resources. To that end, we are requesting the Chief of Staff position to supervise the administrative staff positions and functions of both offices. We are also seeking a Human Resources staff person that will handle those matters, as Acting Director Cooks described in her testimony. I fully support these enhancements and concur that they will greatly enhance BEGA’s effectiveness.
Lastly, as you know, BEGA’s office workspace at the Marion S. Barry Building, where BEGA does not pay rent, is insufficient for our operations. BEGA has consistently grown to effectively execute its mission to ensure the District government operates in a manner that is ethical and transparent. We respectfully request that you and the Committee strongly consider and provide BEGA with the funds in FY22 ($500,000) to relocate BEGA to leased office space, located in L’Enfant Plaza, currently occupied by the Health Benefit Exchange Administration. As Acting Director Cooks mentioned in her statement, as combined office location for the OOG and the OGE would improve the public’s view of BEGA as a combined agency and better facilitate the Office’s ability to share resources. Further, the Mayor, through the Department of General Services, spent considerable and thoughtful effort identifying an office location for BEGA. She unfortunately did not provide the funding in her FY22 budget. I can only assume that the decision not to provide funding was a timing issue because the location was identified significantly close to the time of her budget submission to the D.C. Council.
OOG understands that the budget process is challenging and the necessity and importance of maintaining a balanced budget and appreciates the Mayor’s efforts in presenting her budget while dealing with the pandemic. We hope that you will consider incorporating all of our requested enhancements into BEGA’s FY22 budget. I must emphasize that the requested enhancements concerning OOG – the Paralegal Specialist position and funds for a training portal – will enhance OOG’s effective execution of its mission to ensure that government operations on every level are transparent and open to the public.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am happy to answer any questions you or members of the Committee may have.