Merging state watchdog agencies will subvert transparency

(James H. Smith is a retired Connecticut journalist, an officer of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, and the author of “A Passion for Journalism, A Newspaper Editor Writes to His Readers.”)

Where has wisdom fled to in American politics? With all the rancor and clamor across the land over how literally broke government is at all levels, we are relying more on expediency at the expense of a deliberative commitment to our ideals. Don’t we still believe that democratic government exists for the good of the people, the individual — not for the ambitions of the governor, the speaker of the house, or the president?

So, if it is necessary to tighten our belts in this time of economic peril, let’s do it in places that will least damage government of, by and for the people. Let’s not cut corners over what the people can know about those who govern, how our elections are conducted, and inquiries into alleged ethical lapses of public officials

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in his mostly admirable plan to cut the state deficit, has for some odd reason proposed a miniscule savings (perhaps $1.5 million) by putting the important but small agencies dealing with freedom of information, elections, and ethics under one inherently conflicted, politically appointed commissioner. It is not a smart move, probably won’t save money and raises questions about the governor’s commitment to transparency in government. Our new governor goes around talking about the importance of transparency, but folding the over-worked but highly regarded Freedom of Information Commission into a mega-agency belies his rhetoric.

Malloy is proposing to merge the FOIC with the Office of State Ethics and the State Elections Enforcement Commission, all of which try to ensure those who govern do not violate the public trust. Then he tosses in the Judicial Review Council and the Contracting Standards Board in order to, his budget document says, “strengthen enforcement and compliance practices through information and knowledge sharing” among the five agencies “whose primary mission is to enforce honesty, integrity and accountability within state government.”

Whomever the governor appoints to lord over this agency of strange bedfellows, he or she will be wrestling with an octopus. FOI is all about keeping everything in the open. Judicial Review is notorious for its secrecy. Elections Enforcement keeps a whole lot secret until final decisions are made. One of the myriad exemptions to FOI is the details in certain contracts. If the governor and legislature would simply open up all these processes, then it would make sense, perhaps, to have them all in one agency. Fat chance.

So the Government Accountability Office, as it has been dubbed by the Malloy administration, will be fighting secrecy on one hand and keeping secrets on the other. This does not sound like a formula for success of good government or even cheaper government.

The world-renown and highly honored retired executive director and general counsel to the FOIC, Mitchell W. Pearlman, put it this way recently:

“The merger of these agencies . . . would create an unnecessary, yet expensive, additional top level of bureaucracy to lord over each of the former agencies. This includes an executive director as department head, and undoubtedly one or more deputies and administrative support staff members. All this will easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars extra for salaries, space and office furniture. . .  In addition, the merger will necessitate an expensive, integrated computer system. It will have to be programmed with internal “firewalls” to guarantee the confidentiality of the highly sensitive information kept by the accountability agency’s separate divisions, while ensuring that their public records are readily available under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. This could add perhaps a million or more dollars to the proposed agency’s cost.”

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission was created by the state legislature and Gov. Ella T. Grasso in 1975 and has become a beacon of light, a model for democracy all over the world. This proposed merger is before the Government Administration & Elections Committee of the General Assembly, chaired by State Rep. Russell A. Morin, D-Wethersfield and Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, a champion over the years of government transparency. She readily touts how she has supported the public’s right to know and, in 2008, “defeated a measure that would have limited information available through the Freedom of Information Act.”

Rep. Morin and Sen. Slossberg, it is time again, to champion transparency and toss this very bad idea out the open window.

 

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