OP-ED | News on the FOI Front Looks Bleak
For gadflies, watchdogs, and journalists in the Nutmeg State, the outlook for open access to government information just gets grimmer by the month. With few exceptions, lawmakers and other state officials are trying their best to make it harder for us to take a look at what they’re up to.
The reasons for the desire for more secrecy vary, but they range from a genuine desire for less transparency, to saving money, to pure emotion in the wake of a tragedy. But almost all these measures have one thing in common: they’re bad ideas whose implementation would protect the well connected at the expense of the people.
A report last week by The Courant’s Jon Lender reveals a disturbing pattern. Various pieces of legislation are pending in the General Assembly that would withhold the home addresses of certain state employees, bar access to records of those seeking pardons, and force taxpayers to pay a fee simply for the privilege of viewing a police report.
One of the most troubling is a bill sponsored by Newtown Republican state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, who proposed a one-paragraph bill that would restrict public access to the death certificates of minors until six months after the death. Why? Because Bolinsky got a call from the town clerk, who felt uncomfortable sharing death certificates with reporters only three days after 20 children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As should be obvious to everyone, perhaps the worst time to change the law is when emotions get the best of our public officials. Harken back to two years ago when then-Sen. Edith Prague, a principled and longtime opponent of the death penalty, changed her mind after meeting with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a violent and deadly home invasion in Cheshire four years ago.
If anything, the Newtown massacre was even more catastrophic than what happened in Cheshire. So the urge to proceed on emotion should be resisted more firmly. A couple of mass murders rightly stimulate discussion on gun control but they should not be cause for restricting public access to public records.
Now the State Police, always likely suspects in the battle over public information, have outdone themselves. They’ve asked lawmakers to approve a bill that would impose a $16 fee on anyone who wants access to a police report. No, that’s not a copying charge, which would be reasonable, but a fee for just looking at a report in a viewing room. We all know what the effect of that would be. Fewer citizens asking for police reports and, therefore, fewer people checking in to see what the police are up to.
The office of Gov. Dannel Malloy is proposing to put most of the staff of three autonomous watchdog agencies under a single entity supervised by the governor’s office. That means the state offices of Ethics, Elections Enforcement and Freedom of Information would effectively lose their independence and would be at much greater risk of politicization. Malloys says it would save $180,000. Fortunately, the General Assembly’s appropriations committee is balking, but probably for the wrong reasons. After all, the GA has its own FOI issues and what kind of legislature wants to give the executive branch more power?
Too often the impulse of those in charge seems to be to err on the side of less information rather than more, except when the release of that information benefits the powerful. Most people who work in law enforcement, for example, are reluctant to release information, even when it should be public. But when a cop breaks up a bank robbery or saves a life, the police department quickly issues a detailed press release extolling the virtues of the brave officer and his heroic actions.
And either out of ignorance or arrogance, municipal boards and commissions sometimes adjourn to executive session for the flimsiest of reasons. I once covered a Board of Finance meeting in Salisbury in which a board member — an attorney, no less — suggested going behind closed doors to discuss an agenda item because it involved “potential litigation.” Such a idea makes a mockery of freedom of information law and could be used as a pretense to move just about any item out of public view.
Fortunately, public information advocates are making a lot of noise. And state Comptroller Kevin Lembo is doing his part to promote openness in government. He’s proposed a bill to create a searchable online database of information on the controversial economic assistance the state gives businesses as incentives. So the news is only mostly bad.
But I think it’s safe to say that legislators and bureaucrats need an attitude adjustment. As FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy told Lender, too often their reaction to the release of information is to question why the public needs to know when they should be asking why not.