Bill to allow public boards more discretion to meet privately hits a snag

A proposal to give public agencies greater discretion to meet in closed sessions with their attorneys has fallen into political limbo at the Capitol.

The legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which originally raised the bill and scheduled a public hearing on the measure, suspended the latter and may not reschedule it in the face of objections from right-to-know advocates.

“I am not committed to going forward with a public hearing right now,” said Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the GAE committee. “There are very limited things you can go into executive session for right now and we’re always cautious about (changing) that.”

The measure, which originally was slated for a public hearing on March 12, and later was considered to be heard next week, had been raised at the request of Attorney General George Jepsen’s office.

“This was a placeholder bill to give us time to work out the appropriate language aimed at helping us to better provide confidential legal advice to client agencies,” Jepsen’s office wrote in a statement Thursday. “With time running short, we have decided not to pursue the bill this year.”

But it quickly drew opposition from the state Freedom of Information Commission, as well as from the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. The latter is a coalition of nearly three dozen newspapers, television and radio stations and other news media organizations.

“There’s already too much secrecy in state and local government and we’re trying to prevent more,” said CCFOI President Jim Smith, a veteran Connecticut newspaper editor who retired last year as executive editor of the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald.

Smith said his group fears the bill would open the door to potential abuse of closed-door talks by public agencies. “They could go into executive session and discuss anything and no one would know,” he said.

At issue is a 26-year-old statute enacted to clarify when public agencies can meet in private with legal counsel.

The state’s right-to-know law has long allowed for private discussions on select topics, such as pending litigation, contract negotiations and certain personnel matters.

But after a state Supreme Court ruling raised new questions about closed sessions, the legislature acted in 1986 to ensure that public agencies could not exclude the public from discussions simply because legal counsel was involved. Instead legislators said closed-door discussions specifically must be related to a written document — such as a legal opinion prepared by counsel.

In other words, public officials simply looking to pose broad questions on sensitive topics to their lawyers could do so — but only in open session.

“We have this great (statutory) language that essentially says the lawyer represents the public agency, but the agency represents the public,” Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state FOI Commission, said. “The client in this case is the public.”

Murphy added that the state commission has “very strong reservations about the bill. I think it would bring us back to (before) 1986, and that would be locking the doors too quickly on public meetings.”

Mitchell W. Pearlman, who served as the FOI Commission’s executive director for 28 years through 2005, testified in 1986 that without the legislative fix, a government entity could meet privately “for whatever reason it wanted to if it did so with an attorney under the excuse of using the attorney/client privilege as it applies in non-governmental bodies.”

The GAE committee faces a March 30 deadline for acting on bills it raised this session.