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Keep vital watchdog agencies independent

Published February 15. 2013 4:00AM

Consider this scenario. A Connecticut governor is facing a serious allegation of ethical misconduct. An adverse decision by the Office of State Ethics would prove politically devastating. Release of unflattering documents by the Freedom of Information Commission would not help. The governor instructs an executive administrator - who he appointed and can dismiss - to have a meeting with the lawyers looking into the allegation, just to assure the review doesn't reach any "misguided" conclusions.

Heretofore such a situation would have been impossible, but troubling changes proposed by the Malloy administration would tear down the wall between the governor and the officials charged with keeping an eye on the administration and all government operations.

Beginning in the 1970s, lawmakers created the so-called watchdog agencies - Ethics, the Freedom of Information Commission, and the State Elections Enforcement Commission - to assure state government operated ethically, openly and impartially for all. Since then the legislature has sought to insulate these agencies from any hint of political influence.

With the stated intent of streamlining government, Gov. Malloy last year persuaded the legislature to roll the watchdogs and several other agencies with various degrees of regulatory and monitoring authority into a new Office of Government Accountability (OGA). The purpose was to cut costs by streamlining some backroom office operations and sharing resources. Ethics, FOI and Elections Enforcement have seen their staffs cut by about one-third.

To oversee the OGA the legislature created the new position of "executive administrator" and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed David Guay.

The legislature, however, recognized the potential for conflicts and did not want Malloy, or any future governor, having too much influence over the watchdogs. It created a committee with representatives from each of the nine agencies in the OGA. It was that committee that Mr. Guay was to work with, and the legislature gave it the authority to dismiss him if it saw fit. Also, the governor's budget office was to continue transmitting the proposed budgets of the watchdog agencies to the legislature without revision. Lawmakers added this protection a decade ago when they perceived that a Republican governor, John G. Rowland (who would resign amidst a corruption scandal that sent him to prison for a year), was trying to weaken the agencies.

It was a classic compromise - Gov. Malloy could get his consolidation but the legislature maintained the wall of separation.

But Mr. Guay has chafed under the arrangement, contending he does not have the means to manage the OGA properly. When the OGA committee sought to evaluate his performance, he ignored it, saying the committee did not have the authority.

Now the governor, in his latest budget proposal, has come down squarely on the side of Mr. Guay. Under his planned changes, the governor's office would prepare the watchdog agency budgets for submission to the legislature and retain control over finances and staffing levels. The changes would eliminate the committee and Mr. Guay, or any successor, would answer only to the governor.

Ethics, FOI and Elections Enforcement now have their own teams of specialized lawyers. The administration's plan would pool them into a single Office of Hearings, where they would have to be cross-trained and serve under Mr. Guay's authority. The administration places the savings, with the elimination of two positions, at $187,000. But this idea creates its own potential conflicts. What if the FOI was demanding information that Ethics considered exempt from disclosure, or Ethics was investigating misconduct at Elections Enforcement?

We cannot know for sure the governor's motivation, but he should understand how this looks - not good. Gov. Malloy invites the perception that his administration is trying to gain control over those charged with assuring transparency and integrity in government. He is creating a situation under which the public would view with cynicism any decisions clearing his or a future administration of misconduct.

Ben Barnes, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, rejects such concerns as unfounded. The governor and his appointee would have no influence over decisions rendered by Ethics, FOI or Elections Enforcement, Mr. Barnes said, but their budgets and management should rightly come under the executive branch. As for any conflicts if the lawyers are pooled into one office, they can work that out, said Mr. Barnes.

We view this power grab more seriously. The legislature should reject the governor's proposal and retain the integrity and independence of these vital guarantors of honest government.

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