With a renewed effort to erode their resources and autonomy, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is attempting the most dramatic makeover of the state’s watchdog agencies since their creation as post-Watergate reforms in the 1970s.
Malloy is proposing to consolidate and place under the supervision of a gubernatorial appointee the legal staffs of three autonomous agencies that oversee elections, ethics and open-government laws.
This is a hornet’s nest that Malloy poked in 2011, when he forced a partial consolidation that cut the watchdogs’ staffs by about one-third. The buzzing is starting again, but the administration is dismissive.
“There is nothing insidious about this,” said Ben Barnes, who oversees the governor’s budget as secretary of policy and management.
But critics wonder why Malloy, a Democrat, is inviting a political backlash with his second move on the watchdogs, whose independence the General Assembly defended when a Republican governor, John G. Rowland, tried to weaken them a decade ago.
The legislature protected the watchdogs from budget cuts during the Rowland administration by establishing a buffer: The governor’s budget office had to transmit their budget requests without revision to the General Assembly.
With his budget proposal, Malloy has ignored that provision and called for its elimination. The watchdog’s finances and staffing levels would be under the control of the governor, erasing political protections established in the 1970s and increased over time.
“In one fell swoop, it’s all going to get undone,” said Michael J. Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
The administration says it is simply trying to make the agencies more effective, though proposed savings are hard to find this time: The biggest is the elimination of two vacant positions, saving about $187,000, which could be done without the consolidation.
Non-partisan citizens’ groups and a potential Republican opponent in 2014 say that answer makes no sense.
“It’s perplexing,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, the vice president of Common Cause. “His recommendations save no money, but they take away the independence of the watchdogs.”
“These proposals can only be explained as an effort to gain control over the guarantors of transparency and integrity in government,” said James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. “We ask why the Malloy administration is determined to emasculate the independent watchdogs?”
“There’s only two reasons in my opinion,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, a potential opponent. “One is you are trying to save money. That’s clearly not the case. The other is control and power. It has to be the latter.”
The watchdogs’ investigative and legal staffs are now overseen by agency heads who answer to independent citizen commissions, which also act as adjudicatory bodies on elections, ethics and FOI complaints.
Malloy’s plan would give a gubernatorial appointee, the executive director of the Office of Government Accountability, the authority to assign and discipline lawyers whose duties could include investigating Malloy or some future governor.
The change would remove a layer of political insulation that protects the agencies and the governor: The watchdogs are free of executive influence, real or perceived; and the governor’s office is protected against accusations of protecting friends or punishing enemies.
“One of your roles as governor is to make sure people have faith in your government,” Cafero said.
Barnes says the criticism and fears of undermining the watchdogs is overwrought.
“There are lots of things that could undermine their success,” Barnes said. “Changing how they buy pencils and supervise their lawyers isn’t one of them.”
In 2011, Malloy succeeded in downsizing the watchdogs’ staff and bringing them– though not nearly to the extent he wanted — under the administrative umbrella of a new Office of Government Accountability, or OGA.
Nine agencies are part of the OGA, but the three largest are the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics, and the Freedom of Information Commission. Two years ago, the elections panel suffered the biggest hit, losing 37 percent of its 52 authorized positions. The FOI and ethics staffs shrunk by 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
Barnes acknowledged in an interview that the administration is seeking management control over the watchdogs denied it in 2011, and the lingering resentments over the limited consolidations also are playing a role.
“The initial consolidation of OGA, we didn’t think went far enough,” Barnes said. “This really rounds out what we intended to do the first time through.”
David Guay, the executive administrator of OGA, now has an awkward relationship with the directors of the nine agencies. In one sense they are his bosses: They form a committee with the authority to fire him.
The agency heads say Guay overstepped his authority when he tried to pool their legal staffs. Guay says they are resisting his efforts to steamline operations.
“What we ended up with was an old-fashioned turf battle,” Guay said. “What is the next step? The next step is to address it through this budget.”
Under Malloy’s proposal, Guay would be answerable only to him, and the legal and computer staffs of the individual agencies would be pooled under Guay’s control.
Barnes and Guay said the administration’s proposal respects the regulatory independence of the citizen commissions, while creating a cross-trained staff of lawyers that could relieve pressure to add positions.
But the budget director, who also worked as a senior official in Stamford during Malloy’s tenure as mayor, conceded that the administration also wishes to resolve the turf battle.
The watchdogs are beyond the governor’s administrative control, and that clearly rankles.
“I will admit that it is aggravating to have pockets of state government, which are able to operate without some of the basic periodic reviews,” Barnes said. “Are we doing the best job for the least resources possible? We’re trying to do that across government, and we think it should be done there, just as it’s done everywhere else. Sometimes I’m concerned the independence argument is used as a shield for other things.”
Barnes said the issue is simple oversight, making sure staff is being used to the greatest extent possible.
“Everybody’s got to work for somebody. You gotta have somebody when you don’t show up to work, when you do shitty work, when you show up drunk. Somebody’s got to be able to discipline you and fire you,” Barnes said. “We expect that public employees would be accountable to somebody who is in charge of evaluating their performance.”
But the watchdogs do have oversight. It’s just not to the Malloy administration.