You’d think that living in an open society, having grown up in one, would make people protective of the liberties they enjoy. But the lure of secrecy, and the idea that people are better off not knowing this or that, can be too powerful to pass up. This is even though we understand that secrecy is the tool of the totalitarian and that rejection of totalitarianism, as in King George III, is what helped get this country started.
Secrecy, and limits to transparency, can pop up in all sorts of ways, and often in an innocuous-enough sounding situation. So we have the example of the state of Connecticut and the kissing contest Amazon held as it was looking to set up a second headquarters. Suitors got to line up and smooch, and Amazon got to decide who the best kisser was.
It was not Connecticut, which thought perhaps Hartford or Stamford might have the glass slippers, to borrow from Cinderella. The Record-Journal felt people ought to know about the incentives that were offered in the state’s failed bid, but the Department of Economic and Community Development felt otherwise, and argued before the Freedom of Information Commission that revealing the secrets, otherwise known as the tax incentives, would put the state at a competitive disadvantage.
The deal is a done deal, a failed bid, so it would seem the competitive disadvantage has already been revealed. Nevertheless, James Caley, an assistant attorney general representing the department, argued the information should be exempt from FOI law as a “trade secret.” Otherwise Connecticut’s strategy (again it should be emphasized that this was a failed strategy) would be open for all to see, including other states and businesses.
The other exemption sought was for the state’s bid to be considered a preliminary draft, subject to negotiation.
Mike Savino, the Record-Journal’s local and state editor, argued the bid can’t be considered a preliminary draft because it’s already been considered by Amazon and that Amazon is no longer considering Connecticut. As for trade secrets, had the bid been successful “the governor’s office and DECD routinely share these details,” said Savino. It should not make a difference just because the deal didn’t work out.
Both sides can submit post-hearing briefs by July 13, and the FOI commission will make a decision by the beginning of next year. How far Connecticut was ready to go to attract Amazon is of public interest and ought to be open information. It’s called transparency.
Those interests, the interests of transparency, have also suffered a setback in the General Assembly, where the practice of transcribing committee hearings has fallen to the interests of trimming costs. These transcripts capture the give-and-take of public hearings, which can offer valuable information about what action is taken and why, and their loss is being severely criticized by advocates of open government.
Here’s how Michele Jacklin and Jeffrey Daniels, of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, put it in a recent Connecticut Mirror opinion piece:
“The decision, made without the benefit of public input, marks the latest setback for Connecticut’s 43-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was once the strongest in the nation and a model emulated by other states and countries.”
Can you do something? Yes, you can.
You can remind your state representative of the public right to know, and that it should not be subject to the budget trimming process.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.