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Cops are more accountable; now, how about UConn?

For years the story of freedom of information in Connecticut has been about the efforts of special interests, particularly government employee unions, which control the state’s Democratic Party and terrify the state’s Republicans, to weaken the law so that holding government accountable becomes more difficult. Usually advocates of accountable government have been hard-pressed just to limit the damage.

But this year some damage to the law was undone and the public’s right to know about government was actually advanced.

Public access to police arrest information was restored, as legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Malloy has largely reinstated the requirements for disclosure that had been in effect until a decision of the state Supreme Court last year gratuitously overturned them. 

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No power of government is greater than the power to deprive someone of his liberty. That power cannot be held to account if people aren’t allowed to know the circumstances of arrests. 

Since adjudication of arrests in court takes so long and in most cases ends only with plea bargains or other discounting of criminal charges, not with a complete explanation of what happened, quick public access to arrest information is crucial.

Credit for restoring access goes to the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and particularly its president, retired newspaper editor James Smith; the state Freedom of Information Commission and its executive director, Colleen Murphy; Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane; and state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, House chairman of the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. They devised language that protects pending investigations by police while requiring them to explain what they have done.

The advance for the public’s right to know came with enactment of a law guaranteeing the right of bystanders to record police work with photography or videography and even to sue police for damages if this right is violated. 

The new law also requires state police officers to wear body cameras, finances cameras for municipal police departments that want them, as they should, and makes the resulting recordings accessible to the public, with reasonable exceptions. 

This law will protect the public against police misconduct, which already has been captured in Connecticut by civilian cameras, and protect police against the false accusations they face from criminals.

But the legislature and governor could have gone further for freedom of information during this year’s legislative session. 

They refused to subject the University of Connecticut Foundation to the freedom-of-information law, allowing the foundation to continue operating as a Democratic Party slush fund and to sell university favors to big contributors.

They also just shrugged as UConn’s Board of Trustees deliberated its $1.3 billion annual budget in secret without review or comment from the public, then defended this as being how the board always has operated. The habit probably has violated FOI law.

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As the governor and legislature had so much trouble developing the state budget this year, their leaving UConn without scrutiny for its spending more than a billion dollars was laughable and negligent. This negligence was not excused by another national championship for UConn’s women’s basketball team. Not even a championship for the men’s team could have excused it.

But under President Susan Herbst, UConn increasingly operates as if it is above the rest of state government. 

As he appoints the Board of Trustees, the governor could correct this on his own. If he won’t, the legislature should do so next year.

Of course the other special-interest advocates of secrecy in government will return next year as well. Preserving democracy will always be a struggle against them.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.