By NEFAC Staff
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to further consolidate Connecticut’s watchdog agencies under a political appointee’s oversight “should be recognized for what it is: a political power play,” Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition told a legislative panel in Hartford.
Cavanagh was testifying before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee in opposition to the changes embedded in Malloy’s proposed state budget, which would cut staffs and budgets of the agencies and make the Freedom of Information Commission answerable to a political appointee of the governor.
Her appearance was one of two current NEFAC initiatives in support of government transparency. The other asks the federal court in Vermont to make electronic devices such as tablets and smart phones accessible to reporters in court without special advance permission from the judge.
“Why else would the government take away the independence of the agencies whose job it is to ensure government accountability?” she asked the Connecticut panel. “Something so exemplary about the state’s democracy should not be thrown away for the cost of a few hundred thousand dollars, a cost that would be more than swallowed by a major fraud that goes undetected … and a cost that can easily be saved without the changes to the structure and authority of the agency proposed here.”
Malloy has cast the proposed changes as budget-cutting steps, a continuation of those implemented in 2011 when nine watchdog agencies were folded into the new Office of Government Accountability.
But Cavanagh noted there were safeguards built into that reorganization: the agencies’ ability to propose their own budgets to the legislature; the power to fire their administrative overseer; adequate staffing and independence from the governor’s office.
“The current proposal eliminates all these safeguards … Making an independent FOI commission answerable to a political appointee is nothing short of killing it,” she said. “We have to recognize, hopefully sooner rather than later, that ‘the Emperor has no clothes.’ ”
NEFAC was one of several government transparency groups to speak against the Malloy proposal before the committee, which is not expected to produce a budget proposal until late April.
NEFAC also encouraged Vermont federal courts to “lead on the transition to allowing new technologies in the courtroom” by reversing the presumption against using such technologies to a presumption in favor of such technologies in comments on a proposed new rule for the federal courts.
She noted that states and federal courts are increasingly allowing these devices to be used and that such use can be crafted to be consistent with the proper administration of justice. She also asked for greater openness to video and audio recording in the courtroom noting the proper instructions to reporters about who may or may not be filmed or photographed could address the traditional concerns about use of these media in the courtroom.
She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that few members of the public actually attend court proceedings, so they depend on the news media to assess the fairness of proceedings.
“It is therefore in the public interest to make court proceedings more accessible to the public through audio or video recordings wherever possible,” Cavanagh said.
A decision is due shortly in Vermont