- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Advocates for government transparency applauded a D.C. Council decision to include open records provisions in legislation to create a multijurisdiction Metro safety oversight commission.

“Residents are entitled to know what the Metro Safety Commission is doing,” Kevin Goldberg, president of D.C. Open Government Coalition, said Tuesday at a public hearing on the legislation. “We absolutely support those changes.”

The “Metrorail Safety Commission Interstate Compact” would authorize a tri-state panel to create and enforce safety regulations, inspect systems, mete out citations and order Metro officials to prioritize funding on “safety-critical” projects.

The proposed commission must be approved by elected officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The original bill, worked on by the three jurisdictions this summer, included a provision that would have exempted the safety panel from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and open meeting laws. The body would be tasked with adopting its own policies, independent of those in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

That aspect changed at the urging of open-government advocates, including the D.C. Open Government Coalition, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association. The groups sent a collective letter to each jurisdiction saying that the founding document could result in transparency only when it suits the commission, not when it is necessary to serve the public interest.

Several D.C. Council members also expressed disbelief at the FOIA exemption in the original compact.

“It was puzzling to me when I saw the first draft that included these provisions of secrecy,” said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. “Metro’s problem is they like to be secret. I’m the chairman of the [Metro] board, and I don’t know what’s going on.”

Others hammered away at the point that Metro needs to be as transparent as possible amid declining ridership and eroded public trust.

“The last thing we need now is a secretive oversight body,” said council member Elissa Silverman, at-large independent. “With declining ridership everything needs to be above board.”

Interim council member Robert White also voiced concern about Metro’s secrecy.

“Given the state of Metro — and somewhat distrust of the process and the system — it’s even more important that this body and its work is fully transparent,” the at-large Democrat said. “Hopefully we’ll start to see less government acting like government.”

During Tuesday’s council hearing, D.C. Department of Transportation chief Leif Dormsjo called the new open records provisions “tremendous” in clarifying what the public will be allowed to access.

“I don’t think there was an intent to be secretive,” Mr. Dormsjo said. “The original drafting was a bit inelegant in trying to harmonize the statutes of three jurisdictions.”

All three jurisdictions had signaled approval for the original draft of the compact. Mr. Evans said the new transparency provisions would need to be approved by Maryland and Virginia officials, who will vote on the measure when their legislative sessions begin next year.

“I guess we’ll need to see where our colleagues in Maryland and Virginia fall on this,” he said. “They like to hide the ball completely.”

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission will consist of six members — two from each jurisdiction — and will be funded independently of Metro by the jurisdictions. Maryland, Virginia and the District will have to agree on funding levels and pay an equal share of the contributions.

The commission comes after a year of oversight by the Federal Transit Administration. Metro safety had been monitored by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a panel will little authority to enforce regulations.

After years of problems including crashes, track fires and smoke incidents on the subway system, the FTA took over safety reviews last fall.

Once approved, the commission will take over safety oversight from the FTA, and will wield more power than the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

All three jurisdictions are under a tight schedule. Transportation Department Secretary Anthony Foxx gave them a February deadline for creating and seating the commission.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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