OPINION: The public is not the enemy

OPINION: The public is not the enemy



“Behind Closed Doors” was a TV series that ran in the late 1950s. What it was about was the Cold War and Soviet spies who were determined to steal our military secrets and undermine our country — a situation with grave consequences, calling for maximum secrecy. The last thing you wanted was for information to get into the hands of the enemy.

What it wasn’t about was how to run a city. At least not these days, and not in this state. Because Connecticut adheres, at least officially, to the doctrine “that the people … do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know. …” That’s what the General Assembly declared in passing our landmark Freedom of Information Act in 1975.

Not to mention that the public is not the enemy. And yet, some public servants are in the habit of deciding “what is good for them to know.”

In Meriden, for instance, there’s a long history of the movers and shakers at City Hall getting together informally and working out something they want to do. Then, at the next scheduled City Council meeting, it somehow gets passed with no discussion.

That was the case in January 2016, when it was time to find a new city manager. Council majority and minority leaders met privately with the outgoing city manager and the mayor (but were careful to stay shy of a quorum, which would have made it a public meeting under state law) to formulate a detailed resolution outlining the makeup of the search committee and the process for hiring the next city manager. Then, at a public meeting, they passed that resolution as part of the consent agenda. No discussion needed.

And that’s why this newspaper filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission, taking the view that even without a quorum, city leaders had taken action, behind closed doors, that would substantially affect the public.

The Freedom of Information Commission ruled in favor of the Record-Journal, finding that the closed-door gathering represented a “hearing or other proceeding of a public agency,” and the Superior Court upheld the ruling. But the Appellate Court overturned it. Then the FOIC appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the city. And that’s why the whole thing took so long.

Summing up:

1.) Open government is good, and the FOIA spells out the limited exceptions to that principle.

2.) The public is not the enemy.

***

In a different matter, the Supremes have explained and justified their finding that Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic have been constitutional. One major point was that it would be “absurd” if the governor could declare an emergency for a snowstorm — or a hurricane, tornado, high water, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, drought, fire, flood or explosion — but not for “the worst pandemic that has impacted the state in more than one century.”

OK. We don’t like it, but OK. It’s weird to have this one-man rule going on here in New England, home of the annual town meeting and general Yankee orneriness toward authority.

But the power hasn’t gone to Lamont’s head; most would agree he’s done all right.

So, OK. For now.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.


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