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Open government under attack in Hartford

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published 04/21/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 04/19/2013 04:59 PM

If you prefer that your government functions in secret, think it is great to have the governor control the watchdog agencies intended to keep his administration and all aspects of government honest and open, and you don't care to know any details when children die suddenly and mysteriously - this legislative session is for you.

However, if you're like most citizens and know secrecy breeds corruption, that too much authority invites abuse, and that speculation and conspiracy theories often fill voids created by a lack of information, be forewarned that proposals now before the legislature would take Connecticut government in a bad direction.

Taken together, these proposals present the most serious threat to open governance in Connecticut since the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act in 1975.

Probably most egregious (it is tough to pick one because they are all so bad) is a proposal that would blast a massive loophole in the FOI requirement that public agencies - councils, boards, commissions, committees - conduct their business openly. Under the FOI law, if a quorum of an agency gets together, that's a meeting, which officials must properly give advance notice about and open to the public.

The proposed change would allow a quorum of members to meet secretly and without notice as long as they were all "leaders." The idea, apparently, is to give leaders a chance to negotiate, work things out, and smooth over rough edges without be subjected to the prying eyes of taxpayers.

Take a typical town council. Most every member has some leadership designation - council president, minority leaders, chairman of various subcommittees. Under the proposed bill, these "leaders" could legally take the public's business behind closed doors.

"There's no official vote taken, no vote taken. You're talking about negotiations," said Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee that voted to move this legislation along.

The problem, Sen. Musto, is that the politicians can line up the votes in closed session, the compromises and deals worked out secretly, the public kept in the dark about what was said and done. The voting in public becomes a formality that provides no context or enlightenment about the policy approved or rejected.

Other bad ideas circulating this year include Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to place the management of the so-called watchdog agencies - FOI Commission, Ethics Commission and State Elections Enforcement Commission - under an executive administrator appointed by and answerable to him. This would end the long-standing independence of the agencies and complete changes that began when Malloy convinced the legislature to roll them into a new Office of Government Accountability.

The legislature went along with that, seeing it as improving efficiency, but it sought to retain the independent of the watchdogs and other agencies in the accountability office by having the executive administrator answer to a committee, not the governor. Unsatisfied with the arrangement and claiming the agencies have not sufficiently cooperated in trimming spending, the governor seeks greater authority over them.

It is alarming that Malloy does not see, or ignores, the obvious conflict his idea presents. These agencies need to retain independence from the executive branch. At week's end, momentum was moving against the proposal, thankfully.

Also under discussion are proposals that would restrict death certificate information that has been available since colonial times. One bill would make public only the name, gender, and date of death - with no information on cause of death, where the body was taken, who reported the death, the address of the deceased or even where the death occurred. A second proposal would keep the death certificates of those under 18 closed for six months.

An unthinking and emotional reaction to the massive media demands for information after the Sandy Hook shootings, this is terrible legislation that would allow government to keep secret the nature and circumstances of people's deaths, a policy incompatible with the precepts of a free society.

"This is dangerous stuff, folks, we shouldn't do it. This is not open government," said Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, in voting against the bill at the committee level. He is right.

At the heart of all these initiatives is arrogance - arrogance that political leaders can better work things out among themselves if they don't have to deal with a meddling, watchful public. The arrogance of a governor who sees no need for independent monitors to assure his and future administrations play by the rules. And arrogance that only government can be trusted with the details of death.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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