Once upon a time, Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed into law Connecticut’s pioneering Freedom of Information Act, which established an independent Freedom of Information Commission. This state was in the forefront of the post-Watergate movement for open government. “Secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy,” the General Assembly declared at the time. “The people … do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know.”
But that was long ago, in 1975.
Then one day in 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came up with the idea of sweeping a bunch of small but important watchdog agencies, including the FOIC, into a new structure — ostensibly in order to “strengthen enforcement and compliance practices through information and knowledge sharing” — or maybe it was mainly to save money. In either case, that new entity (called the Office of Government Accountability) was to be run by somebody who ultimately answers to — you guessed it — the governor.
Then one day in 2014, something called Raised Bill 5481 emerged from a legislative committee. Like the previous plan, it would consolidate power in the executive (over contested cases before the Freedom of Information Commission and a number of other agencies), so it’s hard to imagine that the governor will be displeased. In fact, this one gives him not only the power to nominate the head judge (of what would be called the Central Office of Administrative Hearings) but also the power to remove that person “for good cause.”
Meanwhile, we’ve had state agencies and officials (including a state’s attorney) brazenly flouting both the law and decisions of the Freedom of Information Commission — but facing no consequences — and a task force, created after the Newtown massacre, that was charged with trying to strike a balance between government openness and victim privacy in homicide cases, a task force that was weighted with people who favor secrecy and that came up with the expected recommendations.
Meanwhile, recent former Gov. John G. Rowland, who did time for accepting illegal gifts while in office, now seems to be under federal investigation for possible violations during the last congressional race.
And the present administration has been roundly criticized for the questionable but routine use of commercial email, instead of the state system, to conduct state business.
Do we really want a governor — any governor — holding the leash of a watchdog agency that could be called upon to investigate him or her? If this bill becomes law, it will further tighten the gubernatorial grip on the FOIC. Let’s at least amend Raised Bill 5481.
Otherwise, it will mean we’ve changed our minds about open government.
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