The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

Why Was a Protector of the Public Interest Fired? Let’s Ask the Mayor

In late 2010 the city council authorized the establishment of an Office of Open Government (OOG) that, among other things, would ensure that DC’s boards and commissions –- there are around 170, with members who, for the most part are not compensated — be in compliance with the Open Meetings Act which requires that meetings be open to the public and that notices and agendas of such scheduled meetings be published in advance, followed by publication of the meeting minutes (or availability of audio recordings.

But it wasn’t until two years later that this new office finally got its first director, attorney Traci Hughes, whose appointment by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) was for five years. The position, as described at the time on BEGA’s website, was to be one of major importance:

“. . . [S]he was tapped by the members of the Board [BEGA] . . . to bring greater transparency to District government operations. In this role, Ms. Hughes oversees Freedom of Information Act compliance among nearly 60 District Government Agencies, including the Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM) and the Council of the District of Columbia (Council). She also ensures compliance with the District’s Open Meetings Act, training more than 170 boards and commissions, the EOM and the Council on the procedural requirements of the law.”

By all accounts, she carried out her responsibilities resolutely and with high competence, but, as it now appears, much too resolutely and with too much competence — she was not re-appointed, meaning effectively fired!

Seems that Mayor Bowser was not a happy camper with some of Hughes’ actions in that they were critical of Bowser buddies.

Weighing in, especially since the failure to re-appoint became the subject of review in many quarters, has been the press and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety committee, which he chairs. Also at the forefront has been a vigilant watchdog, the D.C. Open government Coalition; its president, Cori Zarek, in a letter to BEGA stated:

“Ethics violations thrive in secrecy, and transparency is essential to combat government corruption. We believe it is time for BEGA to recognize that supporting and promoting the work of the OOG is essential to the Board’s mission. To that end, the Board needs to respect the Council’s decision to make the OOG operationally independent and to insulate the Office and its director from politics. In short, the Board needs to become a better steward of government transparency, and reappointing Ms. Hughes would be a major step in that direction.”

And with BEGA’s announced decision not to reappoint Hughes, the Coalition’s earlier observation seems to have been prescient:

“Pressure to replace Ms. Hughes has mounted in the wake of recent OOG actions to enforce the Open Meetings Act. . . . In October, a Superior Court judge ruled affirming Hughes’s Office opinion that the Mayor’s Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to publish meeting notices and agendas before meetings, and audio recordings or minutes after meetings. Earlier this week, the OOG issued an opinion that the board of the troubled United Medical Center violated the Act by voting in secret session to close the hospital’s nursery and obstetric delivery rooms.”

As we see things, it appears to us that what might truly be behind BEGA’s refusal to appoint Hughes is that her action caused the mayor to become extremely unhappy because of what was a serious public “dressing down” — well-deserved though it was — of LaRuby May, her close friend and the hospital’s board chair.

Remember LaRuby May? We certainly do. She was a key player in Bowser’s mayoral campaign in Ward 8 –- and then later with Bowser’s help, very narrowly beat Trayon White, Sr. in the May 2015 special election to fill the Ward 8 council seat following Marion Barry’s passing. But her time in the limelight faded quickly and with the 2016 election to fill the seat for a full term she was no match –- even again with Bowser’s help — against the dynamic White who trounced her and assumed the Barry mantle on January 1, 2017.

But the mayor was loyal and made certain LaRuby wouldn’t be left out in the cold with no paycheck from DC taxpayers and so ended up with the plum position heading the hospital’s board.

For a mayor to interfere in this manner is a true disservice to the city and to hard-working, dedicated and honest professionals like Traci Hushes — but also, in this particular instance to the detriment of patients and families which have been poorly served by the decision to close the nursery and delivery rooms that had been reached in secret in contravention of DC law.