OP-ED | Progress On The FOI Front: Sunshine Is The Best Disinfectant
While the freedom-of-information outlook has often been rather grim during the transparency-challenged Malloy administration, the General Assembly’s regular session finished up with some encouraging news.
And gosh knows, we could use some. Remember the “Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know,” the ill-advised government secrecy panel formed in the emotional aftermath of the Newtown school massacre? And there was the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which lobbied (apparently unsuccessfully) to get a slew of new FOI exemptions passed for towns and cities.
And don’t forget the disastrous Office of Government Accountability, a Malloy-inspired effort to consolidate several agencies, including three of the largest autonomous watchdog units, and essentially put them under his control. The act, which (shockingly) included the Freedom of Information Commission, was met with cries of well-earned protest from open-government advocates that grew even louder after a pair of arrogant performances on the part of the OGA’s first two executive administrators.
While these most recent developments make me smile, it remains to be seen whether Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and General Assembly are acting out of principle or merely responding to the demands of special interest groups. Either way, open-government types will take it.
First, Malloy signed a bill requiring greater transparency and accountability in the state’s 22 publicly funded charter schools. Charter schools themselves already had to disclose the same information as traditional public schools. The main bone of contention seems to be whether the private CMOs, the charter management organizations that run most of those schools, should be subject to greater disclosure and should be required to conduct background checks on prospective new hires.
As is often the case in public policy, whether it be a new traffic light at a dangerous intersection or additional restrictions on teen driver licenses, changes in policy are typically precipitated by disasters that rouse lawmakers from their slumber and spring them into action.
In this case, the charter-school calamity that provided the call to action centered around Michael Sharpe, the CEO of FUSE, which managed Jumoke Academy. An investigative series by The Courant revealed that Sharpe was a convicted felon who falsely claimed to have had a doctoral degree. Sharpe later resigned but both Jumoke and FUSE were held under a microscope.
A state investigative report released in January sharply rebuked both organizations for “rampant nepotism,” chronic financial screw-ups and “virtually no checks and balances in place to control” Sharpe.
Further compounding the outrage, when The Courant tried to get FUSE to release records under the Freedom of Information Act, the company flatly refused, arguing that it is “not a public agency,” even though millions of taxpayers dollars were paid to FUSE and it essentially functions as the arm of a board of education for a public charter school. An appeal of FUSE’s flimsy assertion is still pending before the FOI Commission.
The new charter school oversight legislation isn’t perfect but it will require the education commissioner to continue to monitor and audit one charter school each year. Certified audits and IRS 990 forms will have to be made public. It also requires charter governing councils to enact anti-nepotism and conflict of interest policies and requires all school employees and those of the CMOs, to subject themselves to a background check.
But to the disappointment of many FOI advocates, the names of donors may still be withheld. That might be one reason why some charter-school groups have come out in favor of the legislation.
The other good news on the freedom-of-information front concerns a bill Malloy signed that reverses a state Supreme Court decision that effectively exempted police from having to disclose arrest information. In other words, the police will now be required to release more than routine blotter information while a case is still pending.
And of course, there is my FOI hero, Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who just launched his second open-government website, OpenBudget.ct.gov, which lets taxpayers track each line item in the state budget and compare revenues and expenditures against what had been actually been budgeted, including in previous years.
So credit where it’s due: the news on the transparency front is mostly positive. Now if we can only get the UConn Foundation, the university’s slush fund for items the government would be ashamed to pay for, to open its books, I’d be jumping for joy. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?
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