By Michele Jacklin
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI) successfully played defense during the three-month, budget-dominated 2018 legislative session, killing or watering down an array of bills that would have whittled away at the state’s open government law.
CCFOI, a 63-year-old advocacy group representing the interests of news media outlets as well as the public, also was instrumental in coalescing support leading to the rescue of CT-N, which televises government proceedings, and pressuring legislative leaders to reverse a policy that would have ended the transcribing of public hearings.
President Mike Savino and Legislative Co-Chair Michele Jacklin submitted testimony regarding the draft of the Connecticut State Data Plan, urging that state officials ensure that the final document is in compliance with the FOI Act and that the data remain open, transparent and accessible.
CCFOI’s major legislative victory stemmed from a bill sought by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill that would have excluded voter information from public view, including voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, political affiliation and voting history. The bill was deeply flawed, vague, unconstitutional and an unnecessary erosion of the FOIA. Fortunately, the bill didn’t make it out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee (GAE).
Other closely monitored bills killed in GAE would have assessed a $125 fee for a second or subsequent filing of an FOI request; exempted the date of birth of a police officer from disclosure; and permitted municipalities to charge high fees for electronic copies.
On another front, Legislative Co-Chair Jeff Daniels asked members of the Appropriations Committee to restore money to the FOI Commission’s budget, which had already sustained a disproportionately large 40 percent reduction in funding and a steep decline in staff over the past few years. At the same time, the commission’s workload had increased significantly.
“The Commission performs a valuable public service,” said Daniels. “It facilitates the public’s access to meetings and records. It settles disputes between public agencies and its citizens over public information – most involving local government and school boards. Resolving these issues administratively often actually saves time and money.” However, the COIC’s budget and staffing levels remain perilously low.
Also in peril was the fate of public affairs programming after legislative leaders severed their relationship with the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN), the nonprofit operator of CT-N. In the spring, CCFOI rounded up like-minded organizations for an educational forum at which lawmakers were urged to reinstate the lapsed service.
A compromise was later forged leading to the continuance of gavel-to-gavel coverage of House and Senate sessions, as well as the broadcasting of selected public hearings, press conferences and political events. However, the programming will be slimmed down given CPAN’s funding reduction from $2.7 million to $1.8 million. But $1 million in bond money will be used to buy new cameras and upgrade equipment.
Legislative leaders also backed off their decision to discontinue the transcription of public hearing testimony, which would have deprived open-government advocates, lobbyists, attorneys and others who rely on the transcripts valuable information as to the merits or problems with bills and to better understand legislative intent. The suspension was originally done as a budget-cutting move but the money was ultimately restored in the face of pressure from advocates.
Michele Jacklin is CCFOI’s legislative co-chair. She also serves as CFOG’s treasurer.