When the late Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed Connecticut’s landmark Freedom of Information Act into law in 1975, the letter — and the spirit — of that piece of legislation were very clear: We would have open government in this state, as open as we could reasonably demand, with very few exceptions, all of them clearly spelled out.
Article 1 declared that the new law would apply to any “public agency,” defined as “Any executive, administrative or legislative office of the state or any political subdivision of the state and any state or town agency, any department, institution, bureau, board, commission, authority or official of the state or of any city, town, borough, municipal corporation, school district, regional district or other district or other political subdivision of the state, including any committee of, or created by, any such office, subdivision, agency, department, institution, bureau, board, commission, authority or official ...” and on and on.
Article 2 defined a “meeting” of such an agency, department, institution, etc. etc., as being in the purview of the new law.
Article 6 allowed for a few exceptions to the law — but only as may concern personnel actions, pending litigation, security, real estate acquisitions and almost nothing else.
Unless we’re missing something, this would mean, for example, that if there were a tiny town called Hicksville, Conn., and if that town had a dog catcher, the dog catcher’s budget, and any meetings at which that budget was worked out, are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
What are the chances, then, that the framers of that law meant it to apply to the Hicksville dog catcher but not to the University of Connecticut, its board of trustees or its president?
And yet, the university’s budget this year — nearly $1.3 billion, of which nearly a third comes from the state — was crafted by a committee, behind closed doors, and finalized by the whole board, again behind closed doors. Altogether, there was about seven hours of to-ing and fro-ing over the plan, all sub rosa, according to The Day, of New London, and then it was formally rubber-stamped at a public meeting, without discussion.
What’s the big secret?
Apparently those who run UConn believe they can do this, legally, because they, in their wisdom, have determined that working behind a veil of secrecy serves the public interest, and because they consider the budget to be a draft, legally, until the board takes final action. And, of course, because that’s the way it’s always been done.
That the University of Connecticut Foundation, UConn’s fund-raising arm, has managed for decades to keep its workings below the radar of the Freedom of Information Commission is also a problem, but a separate one. That UConn President Susan Herbst and the university board have chosen to rely on the same gambit seems to have raised the eyebrows of at least a few members of the General Assembly, and we may see some action on this in the next session.
Whether this is a matter for the FOIC or the legislature, it’s time for a change.
“We as legislators spend months listening to stakeholders, including UConn, before we adopt a budget,” Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, told The Day.
Why should UConn not do the same?