OP-ED | FOI Norwalk Style and No Violins For Shankar
Of all the issues that arise in national, state and municipal government, few of them raise my hackles like public officials who try to block access to information that should be available to the public.
I realize there are more important topics out there, but the spectacle of politicians trying to prevent constituents and the news media from seeing inconvenient information has always pushed me toward fits of apoplexy.
It’s particularly galling in Connecticut, where despite the best efforts of some lawmakers to weaken them, we have some of the strongest open government laws in the nation, courtesy of Connecticut’s trailblazing Freedom of Information Act signed into law by Gov. Ella Grasso in 1975.
The latest outrage comes from the city of Norwalk, where an preposterous bylaw of the city’s board of education has caused quite a stir. Indeed, Norwalk Board of Education bylaw Section 9010, adopted in 1985, sounds like something you’d read on The Onion: “The board of education does not exist between meetings. Board members have no authority except at a board meeting or when discharging an assignment made by the board.”
That’s right. If you’re a member of the Norwalk Board of Education, you’re no longer one the minute you leave the meeting room, unless you happen to be on a mission for the board — and how often does that happen? Besides, even if you were “discharging an assignment made by the board” and didn’t want to be held accountable, couldn’t you easily claim that you weren’t on assignment? Who would know the difference?
The reason anyone cares about this ignorant edict is that there were controversial messages exchanged in 2013 outside the board room between board members during the course of a search for a new superintendent. According to a city councilman, there was, “a rash of vituperative emails” directed at another board member.
When the excellent news website NancyOnNorwalk.com attempted to get copies of the emails, which one board member claimed were racist attacks on her, the victim invoked the bylaw. It took a freedom of information request to get the board to cough up the emails to Nancy Chapman — and even that took three weeks.
The notion that a board’s bylaws can supersede state laws on open government and public documents is ludicrous on its face. As James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, has rightly insisted on these pages, the Freedom of Information Commission should strike down the Norwalk Board of Education’s policy.
I’d go him one better. The Board of Education’s attorney, or whoever gave the green light to the dopey bylaw, should be publicly called out for negligence.
Finally, if this week taught me nothing more than to be torqued off at the enemies of openness, it also taught me to be grateful for the openness our laws seek to encourage, even if some officials think we’re too open.
Now I’m thankful again for these laws because they helped shed some light on Ravi Shankar, the Central Connecticut State University poetry professor who was finally cashiered recently after amassing a rap sheet that would have gotten most of us fired and blacklisted.
In the span of fewer than 18 months, Shankar was jailed five times — and sometimes convicted — on several charges, including rear-ending a car and leaving the scene of the accident, credit card fraud, drunken driving, and violating probation. Last year, the Board of Regents gave Shankar a promotion to full professor and a raise while he was sitting in jail.
The original Feb. 3 press release announcing Shankar had resigned effective Jan. 15 did not say how much taxpayers had shelled out to make Shankar disappear.
When pressed, officials admitted Shankar was paid $60,409 in exchange for his resignation and the dropping of all pending legal complaints against the Board of Regents. Officials no doubt knew they would have to cough up the information anyway.
It’s not clear whether they did so because FOI law mandates such disclosures or whether they simply knew it was inevitable in a state that prizes transparency more than most.
There are many who questioned the wisdom of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s appointment of his former chief of staff Mark Ojakian to head the regents. I, for one, applauded Ojakian’s efforts to make the system more efficient, flexible, and dynamic. Now I have yet another reason to like him.
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