Watchdogs urge lawmakers to limit Executive Branch oversight

The divisions of state government’s new and loosely unified watchdog agency found a common voice this week as they opposed recommendations that would increase executive branch oversight of their missions.

Leaders of the right-to-know, clean elections and ethics agencies, along with the child advocate, urged lawmakers in a new report not to enhance the powers of the new executive administrator of the Office of Governmental Accountability. That post was created last spring to oversee business support services for nine watchdog groups but was denied control over the entities’ budgetary and personnel decisions.

The recommendations of OGA Executive Administrator David L. Guay “would dismantle the carefully crafted balance” under the new system “between the appropriate sharing of so-called back-office functions to achieve cost-savings and efficiency and the necessary independent decision-making authority” of the watchdog divisions, wrote the Office of State Ethics.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission added, “If the EA (executive administrator) does seek to place the SEEC further under control of an elected official who is part of our regulated community, it would be an anathema to our independence.”

Consolidating nine watchdog agencies into the Office of Governmental Accountability was just one of a host of controversial measures employed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly to close a projected deficit in 2011-12 once pegged as high as $3.67 billion.

Malloy wanted the watchdogs merged under a director he then would appoint. Legislators agreed to the merger, but balked at giving Malloy full control over watchdog leadership. Instead they agreed that the nine divisions would retain autonomy over their respective watchdog functions. But they would merge certain business functions that an executive administrator would oversee.

Also part of the compromise, 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 evaluate and dismiss that person.

The legislature also gave both Guay — the longtime director of the state accountancy board who took the OGA post in September — and the watchdog division heads the job of filing a joint progress report by Jan. 2.

Guay, who shared his recommendations in mid-December, warned then that the final report might be a mix of contradictory suggestions.

The new executive administrator’s proposals largely mirror ideas Malloy offered and legislators rebuffed last spring:

  • Giving the governor sole authority to appoint the executive administrator.
  • And empowering the administrator to impose budgetary and organizational changes, including merging data processing and legal services.

The latter recommendation sparked a number of objections.

Ethics officials noted that state law mandates its investigations be handled confidentially. If technology functions are merged, “there remains an unaddressed challenge of ensuring that statutorily confidential files are not hacked or shared — even unintentionally,” they wrote.

The Freedom of Information Commission delved into transcripts of last spring’s legislative debate in its contribution to the new report. FOIC officials noted that the Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, New Haven Democrat Toni Harp, was skeptical about lawyers assigned to ethics, elections, right-to-know or other specialized duties performing multiple roles.

“With my limited knowledge of what they do, it seems like the legal skills that are needed by each of those agencies are specific and would be very difficult to merge,” Harp said.

Jeanne Milstein, Connecticut’s child advocate, said protecting her office’s confidential database regarding child service and child fatality reviews is crucial to its mission. “Centralizing IT support,” she added, “could endanger confidentiality and potentially children’s lives.”

Guay said in mid-December that he remains convinced that the current model can work with some modest adjustments or clarifications.

And he added Wednesday that “the consolidation into the Office of Governmental Accountability is clearly a work in progress. But I’m still looking forward to the challenge.”

There were some positive notes recorded about the merger. Smaller watchdog agencies, including the child advocate, the Office of Victim Advocate and the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, noted that they now enjoy stronger business support services.

But the three largest watchdogs — ethics, elections enforcement and FOIC — faced the largest staffing cuts through the merger. And they complained that their portion of the shared business support services of the OGA doesn’t offset the problems created by the staffing cuts.

Three of the smallest watchdog agencies in the unified office — the Judicial Selection Commission, the Judicial Review Council and the State Contracting Standards Board — did not submit attachments to the legislative report.

Harp, whose committee will play a major role in deciding whether more changes are ordered for the watchdog agencies during the 2012 legislative session, said the initial forecast is for a wait-and-see approach.

“I think we came up with a compromise that we thought could work,” she said. “I think it is really important that we give them some time and see how they operate under that compromise. I would not want to do anything to undermine or erode that. I would be really surprised if many people wanted to do that.”