UConn has become one of the great public universities in the country. Deservedly so. But it is not above the law, including the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, UConn seems to think otherwise.
Last June I wrote on this blog about a “behind closed doors” meeting the UConn Board of Trustees held to discuss a $1.3 billion budget for the upcoming year. I expressed the view that UConn did not have a legal leg to stand on in arguing that the FOIA did not require the meeting to be open to the public.
Fortunately, Hartford Courant reporter Matt Kauffman filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission, charging UConn with violating the open meetings provision of the FOIA. The Courant reported last week that the hearing officer, Lisa Fein Siegel, issued a proposed decision that finds UConn violated the FOIA. In addition, the decision directs UConn to create minutes of the closed-door meeting to “disclose what transpired … to the same degree as would have been revealed by conducting the session in public.” The full commission will consider her proposed decision on February 24, 2016, at which time I say with a great deal of confidence that it will adopt her decision.
UConn should acknowledge its legal faux pax and commit to complying with the FOIA by holding budget meetings in public, just like the Connecticut Board of Regents does when debating budgets for the universities and colleges under its control, and just like the General Assembly does when debating the state budget. But UConn seems to be gearing up for a legal fight instead. According to UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, “If we believe the decision is wrong, appealing to court is a very strong possibility.”
I respectfully urge President Susan Herbst and her legal counsel to reconsider that position. UConn may have a legal right to file an appeal of the FOIC’s decision, but that does not mean it should. The law is clear. UConn was wrong. UConn should set an example about how to comply with the law, not how to litigate frivolous issues.
Disclosure: I have been an adjunct professor at UConn School of Law since 2003. I love the institution and I love teaching there.
Dan Klau is an attorney with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP. His opinions are his own and not those of his law firm.
He is also the immediate Past President of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and is a member of the board of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.