No heroes for state’s right to know

At its annual meeting the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information usually presents an award to a public official who has performed outstanding service to the right to know in the past year. But no such award was presented at the annual meeting a few weeks ago, for the council could not find such a hero.

As reported comprehensively last Sunday by Gabriella DeBenedictis in the Waterbury Republican-American, freedom of information is under attack in Connecticut. Bad as the previous administration was on this issue, Governor Lamont’s administration may be worse, perhaps because the majorities of his party, the Democratic Party, have increased in the General Assembly.

The governor and Legislature have just created an agency to disburse as much as $300 million to public education programs, at least $100 million of it state government money, while exempting the agency from freedom-of-information and ethics laws. The agency was prompted by a gift of $100 million from billionaire fund manager Ray Dalio and his wife, Barbara, a sum that has been matched by state appropriation. Another $100 million may be raised for the agency from other rich people. Apparently the Dalios requested the exemption from the FOI and ethics laws, though until now rich people in Connecticut somehow have managed to give money away without impairing open government.

With state officials on its board, the agency may operate as a slush fund for political patronage. Not surprisingly, the agency and its exemptions from accountability were enacted as part of the state budget bill without a public hearing.

A few weeks ago, the governor signed and the Legislature approved a new contract with the State Police union that prohibits public access to complaints against troopers if the police administration finds the complaints false or unverifiable. This will facilitate whitewashes and cover-ups. For years a similar provision in the contract for the state university professors union has obstructed journalistic investigation of sexual harassment and other misconduct.

Approving the concealment provision in the state police contract, the governor and Legislature signified that they haven’t paid attention to the scandals with the professors or else that they place the interest of unionized government employees above the public interest.

Such provisions are possible only because state law authorizes state employee union contracts to supersede freedom-of-information law. Legislative leaders this year refused even to hold a hearing on repealing the supersedence law. Again legislators served the unions instead of the public.

The governor and Legislature this year also enacted a law allowing secret arrests in domestic violence cases when both parties are charged. This will facilitate politics and influence peddling during secret resolution of the charges before they reach court and the defendants are identified. Public officials seeking to conceal their own misconduct will find this especially useful.

This year the Legislature also failed to pass a bill proposed by state Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, to prohibit towns from charging $20 to people who want to make their own scans of public documents, avoiding photocopying charges. Town clerks want the extra revenue. They might as well charge admission to Town Hall.

Will Connecticut have a hero of freedom of information next year? It depends on whether more elected officials realize that good government might be good politics too.


Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.