If members of a public university’s governing board discuss the school’s proposed spending and revenue plan and keep out members of the public, were they barred from a public meeting?
For officials at the University of Connecticut the answer to that question for years has been “no.”
UConn maintained that it was only working on a “draft” of its budget, and meetings to discuss it therefore did not have to be open to the public under the school’s interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“The budget is a draft until the board acts on it,” UConn General Counsel Richard Orr responded to reporters questions last June when asked why the budget was discussed entirely in executive session. “The public interest in withholding outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
The university publicly released last year’s budget document five days before its Board of Trustees voted to adopt it without discussion, 12 days before the current fiscal year began and during summer break.
That practice ended Wednesday – and other changes are in the works that will make the fiscal habits of UConn and its fund-raising foundation more tranparent.
Reporters were able to observe this year’s “budget worksop,” where top UConn officials and members of the university’s Financial Affairs Committee, a committee of the Board of Trustees, discussed a spending and revenue plan for the school and its health center for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That plan increases UConn’s budget by $50 million next fiscal year, a 2 percent increase.
“We’re going to try things differently this year,” Thomas E. Kruger, the chairman of the panel, said when welcoming The Connecticut Mirror to the workshop at the UConn School of Law on Wednesday. The school and health center will receive $611 million from the state this fiscal year.
The changes didn’t come easily.
UConn faced a public bruising from state legislators and newspaper editorial boards for doing its budget in private last year. The state’s Freedom of Information Commission eventually determined the school violated open-meetings laws after a complaint from The Hartford Courant.
Since January 2014, the commission has ruled nine times that UConn or its Health Center violated open records or meeting laws. The school had 80 complaints levied against it during that time. Of those, 45 were settled after the commission mediation; 11 were never referred to a hearing officer because of problems with the complaint; eight were dismissed by the commission because there was no violation; nine were ruled violations; and seven are awaiting decisions.
After expressing disagreement at first with the commission’s ruling on the budget meetings, UConn officials determined not to appeal it in court. They decided instead to open the budget meetings to the public, retroactively re-create minutes for one of the two meetings at which the budget was discussed entirely in executive session and request training for its senior administrative staff on the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“It’s going to be full disclosure,” said UConn Board of Trustee Chairman Lawrence McHugh during a recent interview.
The changes don’t end there.
Currently, the public must submit requests to UConn to get spending data from the school’s data portal that keeps track in real time of each bill the school pays, the number of employees on its payroll, and revenue coming into the university. That system is expected to be partially replaced by July with the same online system that every other state agency uses, known as Core CT. Comptroller Kevin Lembo uses that portal to post spending data online for the public to easily review.
However, only UConn’s human resource information, such as staff salaries and bonuses, will be put on Core CT. There are no plans to post other spending, revenue data or the contracts the university enters into. The public will still need to get that information directly from UConn.
The university’s chief fundraising arm, the UConn Foundation, is also about to become subject to some increased disclosure requirements, courtesy of compromise legislation agreed to by the foundation and expected to be signed into law by the governor.
The foundation each year raises tens of millions of dollars for the state’s flagship public university, but where that money comes from and details about how it is spent are largely kept secret now because of the foundation’s non-profit status and its blanket exemption from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Currently, the foundation publicly releases an annual report, which broadly describes the gifts it receives for different activities, such as scholarships, research or construction. It also provides a financial overview of spending, the size of its endowment and its operating budget. The school’s Board of Trustees is also regularly updated on how much the foundation has raised.
The new legislation would extend what must be regularly disclosed to include:
- Donor names, unless they have requested that their identity not be made public.
- A list of deanships, professorships, chairs, schools, institutes, centers or facilities that were named in recognition of foundation donors.
- The total number and average size of disbursements made to support student scholarships, fellowships and awards; programs and research; and facilities and construction.
- A list of each UConn employee to whose salary or benefits the foundation contributes.
“I think that the fact that what happened with the Board of Trustees recently with the vote on the budget and the executive session, only makes the whole issue of public confidence and business being conducted by UConn out in the open all the more challenging for us,” Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chair of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee told university officials earlier this year. Her comments came during a public hearing where legislators were considering a couple of bills aimed at increasing the schools transparency.
In previous years, the Connecticut Mirror has had to engage in a tug-of-war with UConn budget officials for access to deficit projections, with officials initially maintaining it wasn’t public information.
That changed shortly after UConn hired a new finance chief, Scott Jordan. The school now provides deficit projections when requested. The budget office also has been more available to answer questions from the media than in previous years.