Watchdog Agencies Pan Proposal For Central Hearing Office
Some of the nine watchdog agencies who felt that they were under attack when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy consolidated them under the Office of Governmental Accountability were surprised this year when a bill called for further consolidation of their functions.
A bill proposed by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee seeks to combine the regulatory hearing functions of a variety of agencies, including the Freedom of Information Commission, Office of State Ethics, Transportation Department, Elections Enforcement Commission, Judicial Review Counsel, Department of Children and Families, and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
At least four of the agencies are members of the Office of Governmental Accountability, which was created three years ago as a way to trim costs, reduce the size of government, and improve accountability. It put together nine previously separate agencies under one roof over the objections of some of the agency executives who worried that a governor-appointed administrator would hinder their ability to do their job.
This is the first year some of the watchdog agencies like the Freedom of Information Commission have been included in the bill to create a central hearing office
“In the past, these bills have wisely excluded the state watchdog agencies. For some reason, they are included this year, and thus the bill resurrects all the issues raised by previous attempts to undermine these independent agencies,” Claude Albert, legislative chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said.
But unlike the initial consolidation of the watchdog agencies, the governor’s office is not behind the legislation. In fact, Luke Bronin, Malloy’s chief legal counsel, submitted written testimony against the bill.
“The administration believes that this bill goes too far in separating agencies’ policy-making function from their adjudicatory, investigatory, and prosecutorial functions,” Bronin wrote. “Agencies possess substantial subject matter expertise, and courts give administrative agency decisions great deference precisely because decisions by agency personnel are informed by such subject matter expertise.”
The Connecticut Bar Association is behind the push to create a central office where regulatory hearings at each of these agencies could be heard by an administrative law judge.
“A central office of administrative law adjudicators would consolidate support services and systems within one agency, thereby generating efficiencies in time and cost savings,” Mary Alice Leonhardt, head of the administrative law section of the Connecticut Bar Association, wrote in her testimony.
Leonhardt argues that other states that have implemented central hearing offices have saved money.
“In the second year of its operation of a centralized hearing unit, Maryland’s office saved the state almost $828,000. Our near neighbor, New Jersey spent only $7.5 million in its administrative hearings after implementing its central hearing units, as compared to the $20 million it would have spent in hearings,” she said.
But the idea was widely panned by the agencies that would be impacted.
“The proposed model disregards the core independent missions of the agencies such as the FOIC, the OSE, and the SEEC, and utterly fails to incorporate or take into account the practices and procedures under which these entities operate under existing statute and regulation,” Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission wrote in her testimony.
She said there has been “no analysis of the caseload numbers, current procedures, time requirements, and conflicting processes preceding this proposal . . . In these times of economic uncertainty, why create a new costly entity when it has not been demonstrated that a need exists for such an endeavor?”
Carol Carson, executive director of the Ethics Office, told the committee Monday that the bill would weaken the independence of her agency and the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board. She said it would also limit her agency’s ability to negotiate settlements as a way to enforce the Code of Ethics.
She said she doesn’t oppose the concept of a central hearing office for other state agencies, but including the Ethics Office in a central office would “further weaken the trust of Connecticut citizens and the integrity of state government.”
Shelby Brown, the newly nominated administrator of the Office of Governmental Accountability, had no comment last week on the legislation.