Thursday, April 7, 2022
Tonight, we gather to celebrate on a number of fronts. First, we have the joy of getting out of our houses and off of our home computers to be with each other in person.
Second, we honor a wonderful journalist and worthy recipient of the FOI award named in honor of Walter Cronkite.
Finally, we celebrate the second anniversary of the 45th anniversary of CT’s FOI act, originally planned for 2020 but put on pause like most everything else due to the pandemic.
When I thought about what to offer as a retrospective on FOI in Connecticut, it occurred to me that on this night, which marks the first time this prestigious award will be bestowed upon a woman, it would be appropriate to spotlight the contributions of the outstanding women commissioners who helped shape the CT FOI Act and Commission from its inception in 1975.
Of course, we have some extraordinary men who helped shape the Commission as well, including our Chairman, Owen Eagan, who is here with us, and their contributions should not be overlooked – but that’s for another night.
So, let’s take a little trip down memory lane in honor of these warriors. Perhaps you will recognize some of them.
The conversation about women and FOI must start with Governor Ella Grasso, the first woman to be elected governor of CT in her own right.
If you know anything about the history of open government in our state, you know that Ella Grasso made passage of a comprehensive FOI act, a campaign pledge.
Governor Grasso has always been lauded for that pledge. But I learned an additional fact about her recently when I was reviewing some historical documents in our FOI archives.
Candidate Grasso’s pledge went even further: she promised to create an independent commission to oversee the new law. I don’t know where she got that idea, but it has proven to be the anchor that has kept our law afloat for all of these 47 years.
The FOI Commission is heralded throughout the world as a model, ensuring that citizens can have their access disputes resolved by a truly independent body, and without going to court.
Looking at it through today’s lens, creation of the FOI Commission is nothing short of a miracle. And we have Ella Grasso to thank for it.
Since that time in 1975, there have been a total of ten women appointed as commissioners (out of 41 – some commissioners were appointed again after a break in time). That’s not a big number – I’d like it to be higher; but the women who have served (and those who currently serve) have surely made their mark.
Unlike their male counterparts, many of whom had prior careers in journalism, our women commissioners came from more varied backgrounds, as you will see.
I’d like to highlight these top 10 (of only 10, but you get the picture) women.
Governor Grasso herself named two women out of the first three commissioners ever to serve on the FOI Commission.
The first was Helen Loy. Helen had vast experience in local government. She was the first woman to serve on the Plainville Town Council. She also worked for the Secretary of State – ultimately running for that office and losing to none other than, Ella Grasso.
In refreshing contrast to the discord in politics of today, Ella and Helen became friends during and after the campaign, their friendship eclipsing their political rivalry.
Ella appointed Helen to the Commission and later made her its Chair. Helen was widely known for her belief that democracy required the greatest transparency possible and she brought that purist philosophy to the Commission for a solid 10 years.
The second Grasso appointment was Judith Lahey. The youngest of the three initial appointees (at 32), she made it a goal to learn all she could from her colleagues. Like Helen, Judy was later appointed as commission chair.
Apparently, the Hartford Courant once called Judy a “conservative” for a rare stance she took on restricting access to information about public employees. It apparently was one of the only times that word was ever used to describe her, either on the Commission or beyond.
Judy served for 11 years on the Commission and resigned to continue her career as a public servant in the judicial branch.
The year 1986, brought the appointment by Governor O’Neill, of two more of our 10 women.
The first was Joan Fitch. Joan also came with significant experience in public service, having served on local boards and the town council in North Branford. She brought that “inside government” experience to her work as a commissioner.
Lore has it that she would say: “I’ve been in similar situations…and I know what goes on there.”
I think Joan’s background led her to be a leader, both practical and skeptical at the same time, and therefore very balanced. She served for nine years but was not reappointed by Governor Weicker.
And then there was Gloria Schaffer. When the Commission came into existence, Gloria held the Office of Secretary of the State. She had previously been elected to the state senate for several terms. She also lost a bid for U.S. Senate to Lowell Weicker.
Gloria served on the Commission until 1991, when she was appointed by none other than Lowell Weicker, her previous opponent, as Commissioner of Consumer Protection.
Gloria was genteel but tough and it was no easy chore to put something by her.
Perhaps Gloria’s most profound contribution to the Commission though came before she actually served on it. As secretary of state, she persuaded a young Mitchell Pearlman, then employed in that office, to “help out” with the infant Commission…and we all know how that worked out.
Mitch, also here tonight, is hands down the staunchest and hardest working open government person on the planet, who continues to “help out” the cause of open government to this day. We all owe Gloria Schaffer our gratitude for that one.
Carolle T. Andrews
Governor Weicker then appointed Carolle T. Andrews, the first (and so far only) woman of color to the Commission in 1992. Carolle had vast corporate experience, working for a large insurance company in Hartford.
A good word to describe Carolle would be “polished;” she soon became a Commission force – always willing to accept difficult cases and never reluctant to share her opinion or express her views.
Carolle was highly respected by all and served as a role model to many of the young lawyers at the Commission at the time, including me. She was on the Commission until 1996, choosing not to seek reappointment.
Governor Weicker then appointed Rosalind Berman to the Commission in 1993. Roz was one of the true “FOI workhorses” of all time.
Before serving on the Commission, Roz had been a local politician, by accident, she would say. She agreed, after some coaxing, to fill a ticket for the New Haven Board of Aldermen, even switching parties to do so. She later went on to run and serve in the state house of representatives for many years.
Roz was unique and her story endearing in many ways. Her husband (Arnold) ran all of her campaigns from the start back in the 70s, demonstrating true partnership, at a time when not many women were the politicians of the house.
A fitting remembrance for tonight is that Roz went above and beyond her commissioner role by agreeing to “other related duties,” including chairing the inaugural anniversary event of FOI in 1995, at which Walter Cronkite himself received the FOI award now named in his honor.
Roz served until 1997, when Governor Rowland chose not to reappoint her.
Norma Riess became the seventh of our women commissioners. She was legendary for her candor, her storytelling, and her wit. But when it came time to put on her FOI hat, she was all business.
Norma was appointed by Governor Rowland in 1997 and served for 16 years, including 3 as its third woman chair.
Norma would typically describe herself as a homemaker; in fact, she liked to caution the parties at hearings that she was “not an attorney.” But she was also not a pushover. Norma made it a point to educate herself on the law and familiarize herself with each and every case before casting a vote.
Norma passed away not too long ago. Her dedication, spirit and utmost support for her fellow commissioners and staff alike is deeply missed.
Commissioner number 8 is Amy Livolsi, appointed by Governor Malloy in 2010. A lawyer by profession, Amy also brought with her a passion for open and honest government. She was especially known for her sense of humor, providing a reminder to us that we could be serious about our work but that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.
In 2013, Amy left the Commission for the “other side” – the Stamford corporation counsel’s office. But she has made it a point since then to ensure Stamford officials get regular FOI training. Plus, she is working on a “how to” FOI book to guide public agencies toward compliance with the FOI Act.
The last two women commissioners of our top 10 serve on the Commission today.
Lenny Winkler was appointed by Governor Malloy back in 2013 and has been with us ever since.
When asked about herself, Lenny will say that she has always believed in doing “the right thing” even if it wasn’t always easy. Whether as a member of the Groton Board of Education, as a nurse in the emergency room or serving as a state legislator (and there is a somewhat infamous story about that which she can tell you herself), this has been Lenny’s guiding principle.
She still advocates for “the right thing” in open government. And, on the flip side, she often pushes for civil penalties to be imposed against agencies who should know better but still don’t do “the right thing”.
Finally, in 2019, Governor Lamont appointed Tory Chavey to the Commission. She is an experienced and highly regarded attorney who hails from West Hartford.
In her short tenure, Tory has brought a thoughtful and discerning philosophy to her decision making.
As the Commission finds itself tackling complex FOI questions of the modern day, including everything from trade secrets claimed by the governor’s office itself to cold case police files, we are so grateful to have tory on board. She is here with us tonight and we hope her time on the Commission will be long.
That concludes the top ten roundup of the women warriors of the Connecticut FOIC.
While the roundup doesn’t cover all of their many accomplishments or highlight the numerous smart and talented women who have worked on the Commission’s staff over these past 47 years, I hope it demonstrates how these women represent the fabric of what our Commission is about: service, candor, passion for government transparency, commitment to doing the right thing and the ability to laugh every now and again.
In conclusion, let’s hear it for the women. May we celebrate them, thank them for their service and may there be more of them.