What is it that we can’t find out lately in the land of the free, in this cradle of democracy we call Connecticut? Too much stays secret. Our collective memory of Ella Grasso is fading. In a state college classroom recently, not one student knew who she was.
You may remember she was the first woman in America elected governor of her state in her own right. She convinced a unanimous legislature – unanimous – of the value to democracy in having state Freedom of Information laws and of setting up the nation’s first FOI Commission.
It’s not going so well. Everywhere government officials are keeping the public’s work secret, from academy to the state-owned airport, to historical records, to the very FOI Commission founded by Mrs. Grasso in 1975.
When citizens are denied public records – our records held by public government agencies – they can complain to the FOI Commission, which holds hearings and, based on the FOI law, can order those records released.
But the commission is four to five months behind because of the number of complaints and proposed budget cuts – this year $339,522 (or nearly 20 percent of its original appropriation). Oddly, a 10th and 11th commissioner are proposed to be added. How obtuse. The FOIC doesn’t need more commissioners. We need that money restored so a tiny staff doesn’t get tinier, for democracy’s sake.
Well meaning mental health advocates came out in droves to try to kill a bill that would make historical medical records available to the public — the century-old records, for example, of mass murderer Amy Archer Gilligan. The legislation would simply put Connecticut where the rest of the nation is, under federal law that releases records after 50 years (HIPAA) or 75 years (National Archives).
It seems to me the privacy culture continues to stigmatize those with mental health problems by insisting on secrecy. Until we get the illness and it’s societal implications out into the open, the less we will understand it, and the more we will look askance at those with the disease.
We have the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans as casino operators, doing battle with MGM studios over who gets to build another gambling palace. Most of the fight is in secret before the state Airport Authority, a public agency that refuses to open its deliberations on whether it will seek a casino at Bradley International.
Maybe you noticed Windsor Locks Board of Finance Chairman Paul M. Harrington decrying the other day how even in Ella Grasso’s hometown secrecy prevails.
“Month after month, the closed meetings continue and the public remains shut out. It’s time some light was shed on what’s happening. Our community and our state deserve to know,” whether a casino will be built at Bradley, he wrote.
This may be the year we all get a bigger peek into the mysterious operations of the University of Connecticut Foundation. Senate Minority Leader pro tempore Kevin Witkos of Canton is praising a bill about to become law that “will increase transparency” at the foundation which has been fighting it for years.
“We have to better balance the need for transparency and openness while also ensuring that we don’t inhibit the university’s successful fundraising efforts. This bill strikes that balance,” he said, and continued on about how transparency advocates “played a major role in crafting this legislation.”
I wonder which transparency advocates he’s talking about? Those I know call the bill “FOI lite.”
Folks, when you get the chance, please tell your legislator, your state senator, your mayor, your first selectman that democracy is about government of, by and for the people. It’s not about keeping it all secret from the people.
James H. Smith, a retied newspaper editor, is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.