Connecticut’s House Republicans step forward to protect open, fair and accountable government

If you found that hard to read, imagine how hard it was to write…

But it is true.

Last week, the leader of the House Republicans blasted Governor Malloy’s plan to undermine Connecticut’s watchdog agencies.

Representative Cafero observed that Governor Malloy’s budget proposal is, “…an attempt to undermine the public’s right to know what is going on within government.” 

Cafero added, “Investigations into campaign finance fraud, ethics complaints and Freedom of Information challenges will fall by the wayside if this proposal goes forward.’’  

While Democratic leaders remained silent or tip-toed around the issue, the House Republicans stepped forward to speak the truth.

The independence of Connecticut’s watchdog and good government entities is under assault.

What are these good government entities?

In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, the Connecticut General Assembly created the State Elections Commission (Public Act 74-213) to “ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process.”

In 1975, Connecticut passed one of the most far-reaching Freedom of Information Acts in the nation and created the Freedom of Information Commission (Public Act 75-342) to “ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut.”

And in 1977, the General Assembly formed the Connecticut State Ethics Commission (Public Act 77-600) to “promote the highest ethical standards and accountability in state government by providing education and legal advice, ensuring disclosure, and impartially enforcing the Codes of Ethics.”

In each case, the commissions and offices were set up to be bi-partisan or non-partisan entities, independent of any inappropriate political influence from the administrative or legislative branches of government.  The laws were designed to protect each entity’s fundamental mission to oversee Connecticut’s campaign finance laws, Connecticut’s freedom of information laws and Connecticut’s ethics laws.

Over the years, although Connecticut’s laws were already some of the strongest in the country, state government expanded and strengthened its good government statutes even more, further ensuring open and fair elections and government. 

In 2005, Connecticut adopted a Citizens’ Election Program, considered the “most sweeping public campaign finance program in the country. “

Then, in 2011, Governor Malloy proposed merging the government watchdog agencies into a single entity called the Office of Governmental Accountability.

While the Connecticut General Assembly revised Malloy’s original proposal to allow the various watchdog entities to retain some independence, the legislation, (Public Act 11-48) created the position of Executive Administrator, a position appointed by the governor.  The job of the Executive Administrator was to “provide consolidated personnel, payroll, affirmative action, and administrative and business office function.”

In this way, the Office of the Governor was given far greater reach into the day-to-day operations of the independent, government watchdog agencies.

However, as the Office of Governmental Accountability’s website notes, even today, each entity within the Office of Governmental Accountability “retains its independent decision-making authority, including for budgetary and employment decisions.”

But just a couple of weeks  ago, as part of his proposed state budget, Governor Malloy and his OPM Secretary, Ben Barnes, proposed doing way with that independent budget and employment decision-making authority.

As Representative Cafero explained, “All these watchdogs we rely on to ensure the rights of individuals and root out government fraud and mismanagement would fall under authority of an appointee of the governor. We will be losing any autonomy in these units.’’

Considering Connecticut’s long standing commitment to good government and independent watchdog agencies, the Governor’s decision to make this unprecedented power grab is beyond belief.

But that is exactly what Governor Malloy has done…

And to date, only the Republican legislators have stood up to say they will fight to put an end to Malloy’s proposal.

The public’s right to know and Freedom of Information is so passé…

As Wait, What? readers learned, yet again, this week, policies and procedures put in place by Stefan Pryor, Governor Malloy’s Commission of Education, continues to prevent parents and public education advocates from accessing important public information about the Malloy administration’s education reform and privatization efforts.  In this case the question posed to Pryor’s agency was a simple one, a question that any parent might ask, but the answer was never forthcoming.

As a participant and student of Connecticut State Government for going on four decades, I can say with certainty that no gubernatorial administration during that period has done more to undermine the sanctity of Connecticut’s once legendary Freedom of Information Act.

Cutting the Freedom of Information Commission’s budget, merging it into another agency and revealing a general disregard for its mission has done significant damage.  And the buck stops in the Governor’s Office.  For example, a Freedom of Information request I submitted nearly a year ago continues to go unanswered.

But fellow blogger and Hartford Courant commentary writer, Kevin Rennie published a piece yesterday highlighting the fact that it is not just the Administrative Branch of government that is undermining the letter and spirit of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act.

Connecticut’s Legislative Branch is doing an equally impressive job limiting the public’s access to information that is – by any definition – a matter of public record.

In a piece entitled “Legislature Resisting Federal Investigators,” Rennie writes,

“Clues to how serious the federal investigation of corruption at the General Assembly is come from the reaction of state officials to routine requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Facts surrounding a list — that an official’s office declined to acknowledge existed in December — were recognized last week with multiple caveats. A request for documents late last year was missing from a recent disclosure of documents but turned up on Wednesday when specifically requested.

This is often the pattern. Deny, obfuscate, see differences where there are none and treat the broad as narrow. All this occurs while they hope it will all go away. If the pattern continues in the legislature, the thick black mark of the frantic redaction of information on official documents released under duress will become that branch’s symbol.”

Before you read Kevin Rennie’s entire column, you can find a link below, read what was written just three years ago as the state celebrated the 35th anniversary of Connecticut’s open government law.

“On October 1, 1975, Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act was born.  The most compelling expression of the purpose behind passage of the FOI Act can be found in its preamble, which was read into the record of both houses of the General Assembly when the law was passed in 1975:

“The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know….”

These were the concepts that inspired then-congressman Ella Grasso to make the creation of the FOI Act one of the primary planks of her campaign platform when she ran for Governor in 1974.  Grasso had witnessed first-hand the impact of clandestine government run amok while serving in Congress during the height of the Watergate scandal.

Once elected, Governor Grasso along with Connecticut’s newspapers spearheaded the drive to ensure creation of the FOI Act.  The legislature passed the law not only in response to the public’s pervasive mistrust of government in the aftermath of Watergate, but also with the realization that trust and confidence in government depend on a balanced disclosure of information.”  (Written in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act by Colleen M. Murphy, Executive Director and General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission and Eric V. Turner, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission.)

Here is a link to Kevin’s Rennie’s column:  http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-rennie-legislature-resists-federal-investiga-20130201,0,5312599.column.