OP-ED | Put The Screws To Politicians Who Don’t Care About FOI
Aside from the fact that the state woke up and decided not to put in the governor’s mansion an erratic financier who wouldn’t tell us what he’d do if elected, voters who rose Wednesday morning had something else to be grateful for: Comptroller Kevin Lembo was re-elected.
In addition to exhibiting refreshing candor and independence on fiscal matters, Lembo is a strong advocate of open government. And as of Oct. 29, he was the only one of the state’s six constitutional officers to sign a pledge to support Connecticut’s landmark Freedom of Information laws.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information sent letters to 360 candidates for state office, asking them to oppose weakening the state’s public information disclosure laws and to require public hearings for any attempts to change those laws. Only 37 candidates did so.
Others, such as Gov. Dan Malloy, whose administration has a checkered FOI history, have said they would sign it but have not yet done so. Malloy’s challenger, Tom Foley, said he supports FOI laws in general but he doesn’t sign pledges. If I were a single-issue voter, both candidates would have failed my FOI litmus test in advance of the election.
Contrast that with Lembo’s response when asked to put his John Hancock on the pledge: “Where do I sign it?”
Lembo, you may recall, is the hero who proposed a bill to create a searchable online database of information on the controversial economic assistance the state gives businesses as incentives. Needless to say, in this era of objection to corporate welfare, there are certain officials in state government who would just as soon not have that information too accessible to taxpayers. To wit, the bill passed the House last year but apparently died in the Senate, much to Lembo’s dismay.
Getting politicians to sign pledges is often a silly exercise. The first George Bush’s no-new-taxes pledge comes to mind. Or, as Gov. Dan Malloy’s perennial challenger, Tom Foley, is fond of reminding us, Malloy himself used weasel words to make a semi-pledge a few weeks before the 2010 election: “I want to be very clear, we’re not raising taxes, that’s the last thing we will do.” The last thing quickly became the first thing as Malloy proposed one of the largest tax increases in state history. Hey, circumstances can change and elected officials are generally wise to keep their options open, lest they look foolish.
But in this case, the state’s FOI law has already been weakened. Last year, following the ghastly school massacre in Newtown, frantic lawmakers passed laws restricting FOI in the dead of night and without public hearings. On the last day of 2013 legislative session, for example, the General Assembly passed laws restricting access to crime-scene photos.
That chicanery gave birth to something called the “Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know,” which recommended 911 call recordings be exempt from FOI disclosure and five-years in jail for anyone convicted of copying certain crime-scene photos or 911 recordings.
Never one to let a good crisis go to waste, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a lobbying group for the state’s 169 towns and cities, joined the secrecy movement. The conference proposed an “executive privilege status” for local officials in an effort to protect the confidentiality of conversations between mayors or first selectmen and their key advisers. And the conference also sought an exemption to prevent someone who is suing a town from using the FOIA to obtain town records related to the lawsuit, rather than seeking them through discovery.
Media and First Amendment attorney Dan Klau told WNPR’s John Dankosky last week he was appalled by the lack of response by candidates and elected officials who either did not respond to requests to sign the pledge or refused to do so.
“That is a really, really bad sign. It’s a sign that 90 percent of our elected officials don’t really care about FOI.”
Then Klau cut to the chase and uttered words that are music to the ears of open government advocates everywhere: “We need to emphasize for [officials] the importance of FOI and get them to pay a political cost — i.e. risk not being elected — if they do not support open government laws.”
Amen. Lembo is the obvious exception, but too many politicians only understand one thing: political risk. The tricky part of Klau’s equation will be convincing voters to care enough themselves about FOI to exact a political cost on those who don’t.
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