Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, and James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, seem to have some differences. The way I can tell is that Smith recently wrote an opinion piece for The Connecticut Mirror (which also ran in this newspaper, on May 9) and then Ambrose wrote a response in which he called Smith’s piece a “diatribe,” a “tirade” and an “uninformed rant.” The topic was the creation of the new Victims’ Rights Enforcement Advisory Commission, of which Ambrose is the chairman. (Those opinions can be found at http://ctmirror.org.)
Both of these guys spent months working on the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know, which was created to look into the draconian restrictions that were adopted by the General Assembly — at the last minute, without a public hearing and in the dead of night — after the Newtown massacre.
While avowing “respect” for Smith’s passion about safeguarding this state’s Freedom of Information Act, which goes back to the time of Gov. Ella T. Grasso, Ambrose denounces Smith for his alleged “tunnel vision” and “nonsensical rhetoric” concerning the new commission.
Not so fast.
Smith ran this newsroom for years, and for much of that time our Sunday columns appeared on this page, with Yrs Trly on the right and Smith on the left — sometimes way over on the left. We often disagreed, but his “rants” were never “uninformed,” his rhetoric was never “nonsensical” and his “tunnel vision” always seemed to lead straight to a matter of principle.
Surely the work Ambrose is doing on the new commission is of much importance, and he calls attention to a great number of areas where this state is failing crime victims, issues of which the general public may be largely ignorant. At the same time, he is careful in his opinion piece to contrast Smith with “those of us who are concerned about” the well-being of crime victims.
Smith has taken on the difficult task of standing up for another principle that people, in their understandable sympathy for crime victims, may not fully understand: the need to oppose creeping secrecy in government. And it is chilling to learn that important members of the state administration continue to think of that as a “moot issue.”
Smith cites James Madison, the Constitution and a number of Supreme Court decisions. The highest source Ambrose cites is a press release, from a politician. That press release, from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office, states that the new commission will not concern itself with the FOI laws “but instead will focus on the direct relationship between victims’ rights and the criminal justice system as a whole.”
Well, that sure sounds good, and it’s probably vague enough to pass muster with most people.
But let’s not forget that this press release comes from the governor who, no matter what he may now say about the blessings of government transparency and freedom of information, signed that midnight secrecy bill; and loaded the Newtown commission up with people known to favor throwing a cloak of secrecy over information that had always been public; and tried twice, finally succeeding, to bring the formerly independent Freedom of Information Commission under the control of the executive — that is, under his own control.
And let’s not forget that a press release does not have the force of law. Even if the intent is sincere, it’s no guarantee of anything. It’s just a press release.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org