Transparency at the RAC

I will be submitting the following item to the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council as a public comment in advance of next week’s meeting; I am publishing it here for public reference.

On the agenda for the March 2, 2011 RAC meeting, there was an item titled “Audio/Video Recording of Council Meetings”. Time constraints meant that the agenda item itself was deferred, but the presence of a local television news crew forced some discussion of the issue nonetheless. The matter has also come up at other RAC meetings since the January 3, 2011 special meeting on bag searches. While I understand that the RAC has been advised by WMATA’s Office of General Counsel to develop a policy on recording of RAC meetings, I would urge the RAC to carefully consider the implications of such a policy, particularly if it is at all restrictive.

At several recent RAC meetings, members have demanded to know the identity of individuals engaging in recording, as well as the purpose of their activities. Some individuals have been met with suspicion, and some members of the RAC appeared unmoved by David Alpert’s argument that RAC meetings are open to the public, and that they should thus be unconcerned by the presence of individuals recording RAC meetings.

Unfortunately, these concerns fail to recognize the fact that the RAC is not a glorified focus group; it is a deliberative body charged with representing riders to the WMATA Board of Directors, and its meetings are open to the public. The RAC is expected to address serious issues involving WMATA which are of substantial importance to Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess riders. Given that, it is vital that the RAC operate in a transparent manner, and unfettered access to record RAC meetings is a vital part of that transparency.

The RAC should not distinguish between photography, videography, and audio recording, nor should any distinction should be made between accredited media and other individuals. All should be permitted.

When WMATA staff make presentations to the RAC, they should be reminded that RAC meetings are in fact open to the public; the RAC by-laws do not provide for the RAC to hear confidential matters in closed session. WMATA staff should thus govern themselves accordingly when discussing (for example) ongoing legal matters or procurements with the RAC.

Similarly, some individuals attending RAC meetings for the purpose of providing public comment have expressed reservations about being recorded at those meetings. They should be advised that RAC meetings are open to the public, and that that includes not only those members of the public who attend in person, but all members of the public. Individuals who cannot accept those terms should be encouraged to instead provide written remarks to be entered into the record—as noted above, the RAC does not have the ability to hear such comments in closed session.

As to the issue of implementing this policy, I would recommend that the RAC draft model language which would then be adopted by the RAC and its committees. Given that the procedures for the WMATA Board of Directors make no mention of the issue of recording public meetings of the WMATA Board, I would further recommend that the RAC submit a letter to the Board encouraging it to adopt the RAC’s model language for public meetings of the Board and its committees.

Finally, I must point out that if the RAC were to adopt a policy which restricted recording at RAC meetings, the RAC would be placed in the peculiar (if not outright inconsistent) position of working to protect riders’ Fourth Amendment rights, while simultaneously curtailing their First Amendment rights at RAC meetings.