Op-Ed: Too few CT lawmakers have signed FOI pledge

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, Lt Gov. Nancy Wyman and state Comptroller Kevin Lembo – a card carrying FOI advocate – have signed the Freedom of Information Pledge proffered by the non-profit advocacy group Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

It took several weeks for Malloy to decide to sign on. Lembo asked immediately, “Where do I sign?”

But too few have.

Op-ed submit bugOnly 24 of 187 state legislators (about 12 percent) have signed the pledge, initially issued last October during the election campaign and again last month. None of the top leaders of either house have signed, though some key veteran state senators and representatives have.

Deputy Speaker of the House Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks, understands the history: “Gov. Grasso held this seat when she served as a state representative and it is only fitting that I support her legislation,” said Sayers in signing the FOI pledge.

It was Gov. Ella Grasso who proposed and signed Connecticut’s FOI law in 1975. It created a first-in-the-nation Freedom of Information Commission where citizens could put government secrecy on trial. Any cop, selectman, school board, or state agency – any public official except a judge in a court room (though judicial administrative records are subject to the FOI laws ) — could be ordered by the FOI Commission to disclose information a citizen was seeking – unless it fit into a few specific exemptions.

Back then, Democrat Ella Grasso convinced the entire legislature to pass the law, even every Republican with the help of state Senate Majority Leader Lewis Rome, who said, “I think it is landmark legislation . . . and I hope that we would unanimously support the legislation as witness our good intentions and good faith in the idea that government belongs to the people.”

Today, so far four Republicans and 20 Democrats have affixed their signatures. And in the 40 years since the law was adopted, the number of exemptions has exploded. Piecemeal, more and more government records are being kept secret.

So CCFOI, which was founded 60 years ago and worked with Grasso on the original legislation, issued the pledge. It is modeled, in part on the Connecticut Constitution, Article Third, Section 16: The debates of each house shall be public, except on such occasions as in the opinion of the house may require secrecy.

And that is what the pledge asks – to keep debate open and to protect the FOI Commission: “I will support and protect Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, including the independence of the state’s unique Freedom of Information Commission, and oppose weakening it. If proposals are made to limit public access, I will, within my authority, assure such proposals are subjected to public processes, including public hearings, and will support such changes only when the public’s interest in non-access to records or proceedings clearly outweighs the public’s interest in access.”

Four years ago the medical records of Civil War soldiers at Connecticut Valley Hospital and the medical records of the state’s most infamous mass murderer – Amy Archer Gilligan, who poisoned her husband and without a doubt many others at her nursing home 100 years ago – were public. That is until the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services learned that historical researchers were seeking the records. The department moved to shut down the information, never mind that it might shed light on post traumatic stress disorder, or the thinking of a mass murderer.

After failing to get a bill out of committee in the 2011 legislative session, DMHAS managed an essentially secret “Midnight Amendment” – inserted as the 37th section of a 98-section public health bill in 2012. The vast majority of legislators probably did not even know of its existence. No debate, no discussion in a maneuver that does not serve the public good.

Legislators pledging to require debate could blunt these tactics.

Some have said they simply don’t sign pledges, but mostly the FOI Pledge has been met by silence. To be sure state legislators from important cities — Danbury, East Hartford, Manchester, Middletown, New Haven, Norwalk, Torrington and Waterbury – have signed. It’s also heartening to see so many of the people’s elected representatives stand up for the people’s right to know from smaller towns all over the state — from Chester and Haddam to Stratford to Canton and Barkhamsted to Mansfield and Willington to Southington to Windsor.

Now we need more.

James H. Smith is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

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