Note: This page covers information specific to the District of Columbia. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The District of Columbia Sunshine Act provides the public with a right of access to meetings of D.C. government bodies. It permits any member of the public to attend the meetings of "any department, agency, board or commission" of the District government. It also entitles you to inspect and copy transcripts of meetings, but it does not impose specific notice requirements on government bodies.
What Meetings Are Covered?
The meetings of any department, agency, board, or commission of the District government, including meetings of the Council of the District of Columbia, are covered by the Sunshine Act. See D.C. Code § 1-207.42(a). For a list of D.C. government departments, boards, and agencies, with contact information, see the Directory of Agencies and Services. Meetings of the federal government are not covered by the D.C. Sunshine Act.What Is A Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the D.C. Sunshine Act, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under D.C. law, the term "meeting" applies to gatherings "at which official action of any kind is taken," including hearings. This broad definition includes most gatherings where a multi-member government body takes action on a public matter. But it probably does not cover informal gatherings of government officials to engage in deliberations, information-gathering, and administrative work. It also does not apply to purely social and ceremonial gatherings.
In addition, the D.C. Sunshine Act does not apply to a government body's deliberations when it is acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial function. This means that, when a government body is acting like a judge in deciding the rights and obligations of specific individuals or groups, it may conduct its deliberations (i.e., reviewing the evidence and discussing possible findings) in private, assuming that it hears testimony and arguments in public and makes transcripts of hearings available to the parties and any interested persons. For example, one D.C. court held that, when a District agency was reviewing the denial of a gun permit to a D.C. resident, it properly conducted its deliberations in private. Jordan v. District of Columbia, 362 A.2d 114, 117-19 (D.C. 1976).
The Sunshine Act does not specifically address whether telephone, email, and other electronic communications can constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the open-meetings requirements.
What Are Your Rights?
The D.C. Sunshine Act gives "the public" the right to attend the meetings of D.C. government bodies. D.C. law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend the meetings covered by the Act.
The D.C. Sunshine Act does not impose on D.C. government bodies any obligation to give the public notice of their meetings. You should check the websites of the D.C. government bodies that you are interested in and contact them to see if you can sign up for a mailing list or other targeted mechanism for delivering notice.
Minutes and Recordings
D.C. government bodies must record and keep "written transcripts or transcriptions" of all open meetings. They must make these transcripts or transcriptions available to the public for inspection and copying at reasonable cost. See D.C. Code § 1-207.42(b) (link is to entire D.C. Code; click through to Title 1, Chapter 2, Subchapter VII, Part D, and then locate the specific provision).
Closed Meetings or Sessions
Unlike other federal and state open meetings laws, the D.C. Sunshine Act does not contain specific exemptions allowing a D.C. government body to close a meeting or session to the public.
What Are Your Remedies if You Are Denied Access
Unfortunately, D.C. law is not clear on what you can do if you are denied access to a public meeting. The Sunshine Act does not say that members of the public may bring a lawsuit for violations of its requirements; it only says that resolutions, rules, acts, regulations, and other official actions won't be effective unless enacted at an open meeting. A court could conceivably grant you the right to bring a lawsuit to prevent a meeting from being closed, but this is not certain.
In any event, a lawsuit usually is a slow and expensive solution, so it is generally better to resolve a dispute without going to court. In the event that you are denied access to a meeting, you should contact the government body in question and indicate that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the governmental body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.