Draft report renews fears about watchdogs’ autonomy

The battle over consolidating state government’s watchdog agencies could be headed for a second round in 2012, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s choice to guide the merger offered a preview this week.

David L. Guay, acting executive administrator for the new Office of Governmental Accountability, wrote in a draft report to legislators that he faces an “awkward relationship” with the watchdog agencies, given that he must try to trim their spending yet they claim authority to evaluate and fire him.

Guay, a veteran state administrator, also said that if he had more authority to implement changes in staffing and job functions, “there are areas that could be discussed” beyond the existing consolidation efforts.

“There is clearly reluctant acceptance of this merger,” Guay said during an interview Monday in his office at 18-20 Trinity St. in Hartford. “Where I don’t have the authority (to streamline operations) I would like the clarity of being shown who does.”

Guay, who had been executive director of the state Board of Accountancy for 22 years, began an unusual assignment in September after being chosen, in part, by agencies that didn’t want an executive administrator in the first place.

Malloy, who inherited a budget deficit of historic proportions when he took office last January, responded with a flurry of unpopular solutions, including more than $1.5 billion in new taxes, major labor concessions and a host of departmental and agency consolidations.

Among the most controversial was a plan to unify the State Elections Enforcement and Freedom of Information commissions, the Office of State Ethics and six other watchdog agencies into one entity under a director appointed by the governor.

Legislators agreed to the merger, but balked at giving Malloy full control over watchdog leadership. Instead they agreed that the nine divisions within the new Office of Governmental Accountability would retain autonomy over their respective watchdog functions. But they would merge certain business functions that would be overseen by an executive administrator.

Lawmakers also agreed that the leaders of the nine watchdog agencies would recommend at least three finalists for the administrator’s post. Malloy would make an appointment from that pool, but the division leaders could dismiss that person.

The watchdog agencies and their allies opposed the merger, but since then have vigorously fought to defend the compromise, fearing a move closer to the governor’s original proposal.

Guay made it clear that this attitude has made his job challenging.

His draft report cites a statement posted in August on the FOI Commission’s website that refers to the consolidation as “the most significant challenge this session and unfortunately the greatest setback for good and open government in recent years.”

Yet Guay nonetheless remains convinced that the current model can work with some modest adjustments or clarifications.

“There is no doubt this is a hybrid type of agency with many unique components, but I still think we can do this and do this well,” he said. “I am still convinced you can keep the missions separate and effectively support those missions. And there still are real economies of scale that can be affected here.”

“I think it is my place to provide my expertise, my ideas,” said Guay,

For example, though Guay conceded there has been some watchdog reluctance to pool legal staff, he noted that many private law firms have attorneys trained in more than one area of expertise.

Guay and representatives of the watchdog agencies must file a report with the legislature by Jan. 2 on the merger efforts to date. And the executive administrator said that while he hopes a consensus document can be produced, he realized that a report with various competing assessments might be filed.

Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said that while she understands there is a statutory deadline, any report may be premature.

“I just think, quite frankly, it’s too soon,” to assess its effect on finances or watchdog functions, she said. “The agencies and the executive administrator have worked together to reach their goals, but we haven’t really done an analysis across all nine members.”

But the president of a nonprofit coalition of newspapers, television stations and other news media, said Monday that Guay’s draft too closely echoes Malloy’s original proposal — and a level of consolidation that most legislators considered too extreme.

“I think it’s Round Two,” said Jim H. Smith, who retired last year as executive editor of the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald and who still serves as president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

“The FOI community from the get-go has opposed the downsizing of these watchdog agencies and still does. These are too important for accountability and open government.”