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These are rough times for government transparency in Connecticut

james-smith-hed-shotBy James H. Smith,  president of the non-profit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and retired newspaper editor

HARTFORD, Conn. – In 1975, under the enlightened leadership of Gov. Ella T. Grasso, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a freedom of information law that remains a model today.

The original legislation proclaims “that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know . . . and that the record of all public agencies be open to the public except in those instances where a superior public interest requires confidentiality.”

Today it is that confidentiality and secrecy that is taking precedence in Connecticut’s halls of government.

“It seems that this legislative session there have been more significant intrusions into the public’s right to know, or potential intrusions, than ever before,” Mitchell W. Perlman, the elder statesman of FOI told the Connecticut Law Tribune.

“I think it’s part of a trend. I’ve studied FOI regimes throughout the United States and throughout the world, and the trend is pretty clear here,” said the state’s first FOI Commission executive director.

“There are probably in excess of 90 countries and every state and the District of Columbia that have FOI laws. Once they’re enacted, they tend to be weakened over time, through the creation of legislative exceptions and court decisions.”

Not only did Gov. Dannel P. Malloy negotiate in secret with prosecutors and legislative leaders over Newtown massacre legislation, no public hearing was ever held on the bill, which passed and now seals not only Newtown crime scene photos, but photos from all state homicides, as well as audio tapes of 911 calls.

Only four legislators voted against the Newtown Legislation, including Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, who said, “The more we understand about our ugliness, the better chance we have to overcome that ugliness. Suppression of horrific conduct, as this bill dictates, invites history to repeat itself.”

In a big setback for transparency, after it passed in the state House 145-0, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo’s plan to create an online database for tax breaks and other economic development aid to corporations died in the Senate.

“Our state invests hundreds of millions of dollars every year in economic assistance and tax credits designed to promote economic development and job growth,” Lembo said. “ This legislation would have established key transparency and open government measures related to these dollars.”

And then there were the proposals that didn’t make it into law, thanks to the efforts of open government advocates and the news media. These bills would have:

– restricted the release of death certificates, which have been public since Colonial times.

– blocked public access to files and hearings on convicts’ applications for pardons.

– further eroded the independence of the FOI Commission, the state Ethics Commission and the Elections Enforcement Commission.

–  let the state police charge citizens $16 for simply looking at a report on a car accident or investigation.

– exempted the home addresses of state prison nurses and Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors from disclosure by public officials, in much the same way as the addresses of police and judges are blocked.

The Hartford Courant at the end of the session pointed to, “the growing penchant of the state’s elected leaders to pull down government’s shades so the bill-paying public can’t see inside. These leaders have fallen in love with secrecy and out of love with what used to be a cherished Connecticut value, transparency.

“The increased number of attempts this session to close government to the public, as well as the number of bills negotiated in secret and given no public hearing, are worrisome.”

The Day of New London on closing Newtown records: “The legislation is a reaction to the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown by a lone, suicide gunman. Families of the victims have expressed their objections to making photos and other records related to the crime available to the press or public, fearing an invasion of their privacy and exploitation of the images of the victims.

“While those fears are understandable, there is no turning back from the continuing expansion of information technology and it is a dangerous precedent to use that technology as the rationale for eroding First Amendment freedoms.”

As the governor proposed to take the lawyers away from the FOI, elections and ethics commissions, and put them in a pool supervised by a gubernatorial appointee, virtually every newspaper in the state rose up against the power grab.

When Malloy’s budget director testified that the move would create efficiencies as lawyers are generalists, Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition,  responded at the same hearing that, on the contrary, regulatory attorneys are highly specialized and to try to turn an FOI legal expert into an election lawyer would harm their effectiveness. The administration proposal was essentially shelved.

The Newtown legislation established a 17-member task force “To consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know” starting July 1 and finishing Jan. 1, 2014.

Some are worried the commission is stacked with secrecy advocates, but the FOI community is prepared to serve. It’s frustrations were articulated late in the session by Deputy House Speaker Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who said he has had enough.

“I’m fed up with all the nibbling away,” Godfrey said in an interview with a reporter. “Personally, I’ve drawn a line in the sand. We will go no further.”