OP-ED | Lawmakers Should Stiff-Arm The Secrecy Crowd
The cause of freedom of information in Connecticut went through a bleak period last year. The ghastly school massacre in Newtown had prompted frantic lawmakers to pass laws restricting FOI in the dead of night and without public hearings. And just when open-government advocates thought things had quieted down, along came the “Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know.”
Beware of any panel with 11 words in its title. The name alone sounds inherently political, contrived as it was to balance competing interests. But the reality is any effort to impose yet more secrecy on government has far less to do with victim’s rights than it does with appeasing emotional constituents and shielding our eyes from what the government is doing in our names and with our money.
Be that as it may, the task force, which was created last year when the General Assembly bravely passed laws restricting access to crime-scene photos on the last day of the legislative session, was stacked in favor of secrecy and everyone knew it.
The task force’s latest product comes in the form of a recommendation by a 15-2 vote last month to the General Assembly that 911 call recordings be exempt from disclosure under the state’s FOI Act. The report also calls for five years in jail for anyone convicted of copying certain crime-scene photos or 911 recordings. That’s right, such copying would be put right up there with Class D felonies such as threatening a legislator and practicing medicine without a license.
And yet another organization is jockeying for more secrecy. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a lobbying group for the state’s 169 towns and cities, seeks, in the words of CTNewsJunkie’s Hugh McQuaid, “to establish 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.”
But far more troubling is that CCM is seeking 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. In other words, anyone who is suing a municipality would become a second-class citizen who could obtain certain documents currently covered by FOI only through the courts.
“They are two separate tracks. Just because you’re involved in litigation doesn’t mean you can’t make an FOI request,” Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state FOI Commission, told CTNewsJunkie in a paroxysm of common sense.
The good news is that some influential and level-headed lawmakers are balking at the move away from openness. Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee and one of only four lawmakers wise enough to vote against last year’s middle-of-the-night shenanigans, said he will view the additional FOI exemptions with skepticism.
And Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams told The Courant’s Jon Lender he does not support the task force’s efforts to restrict access to crime-scene information such as 911 recordings.
Unfortunately, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, Senate Minority Leader and Republican candidate for governor John McKinney and House Minority Leader Larry Cafero avoided Lender’s questions about whether they support the task force’s recommendations.
But perhaps most disturbing is the panel’s recommendation, slammed by task force member James H. Smith in a Courant op-ed last month, to shift the burden from government officials having to demonstrate why a document should be secret to members of the public having to show why a contested document isn’t an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
As you might have guessed, Smith was one of only two members to vote against his own task force’s findings. Now, if we can only find enough courageous lawmakers in the General Assembly to vote against the recommendations of the they task force they themselves created.
That would be the happiest moment for open government since Gov. Ella Grasso signed Connecticut’s trailblazing Freedom of Information Act into law in 1975.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is a former high-school English teacher who was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.