Legislative and other news from the Freedom of Information Commission

By Executive Director and General Counsel Colleen M. Murphy and
Public Education Officer Thomas A. Hennick

During the 2019 legislative session, there were numerous proposals introduced that would impact transparency and open government in Connecticut. The staff of the Freedom of Information Commission monitored a total of 224 bills. Of those, 117 received public hearings and FOI Commission staff prepared statements for and/or testified on 19 of those bills. Twenty-eight of the 224 bills monitored became public acts.

Among those proposals of significant concern were (1) the approval of an arbitration award containing provisions superseding the public records requirements within the Freedom of Information Act, and (2) the establishment of a nonprofit corporation and governing board which appear to perform a governmental function, and yet are not subject to certain ethics and disclosure laws.

The General Assembly ultimately approved an interest arbitration award between the State of Connecticut and the State Police Union that contains provisions superseding the public records requirements within the FOI Act.  Specifically, Article 9 of the agreement exempts from disclosure the personnel files and internal affairs investigations of state troopers, with limitations. The commission objected to those provisions. arguing that records relating to a public employee’s ability to perform his or her duties, or an investigation of alleged misconduct. are legitimate matters of public concern. The commission believes that even where an investigation results in exoneration, there may be a legitimate public interest in an alleged abuse of power while engaged in the performance of official police duties. There is also a legitimate public interest in knowing the manner in which investigations about public employees are conducted.

The General Assembly also passed House Bill 7424, which never received a public hearing, establishing “The Partnership for Connecticut, Inc.,” a nonprofit corporation, and a 13-member governing board. The board, which will include five state officials (i.e., the Governor, House Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem, and House and Senate minority leaders) will oversee the expenditure of a $100 million contribution from the philanthropic foundation of Raymond Dalio, a matching $100 million allocation of taxpayer money and another $100 million contributed by other private donors over the next five years. Such funds are to be allocated for improvements in public education. House Bill 7424 provides that “[t]he corporation shall not be construed to be a department, institution, public agency, public instrumentality or political subdivision of the state, or to perform any governmental function.” The FOI Commission argued that there will be a lack of transparency and accountability with respect to how the corporation and board function and allocate funds.

Outside of the legislative realm, the commission also hosted another successful conference in 2019. Held in Haddam, the conference drew a record crowd of 250 attendees. The theme for the conference was Privacy vs. Transparency, Maintaining the Delicate Balance. Attendees heard from Comptroller Kevin Lembo, myself and FOI Commissioner Christopher Hankins. There were educational panels offered by FOI staff and by Tom Mooney and Henry Zaccardi, attorneys from Shipman and Goodwin. The featured panel on privacy vs. transparency was moderated by journalist and CFOG board member Matthew Kauffman, who was joined by panelists Jeremy Pearlman, an assistant attorney general; Victoria Veltri, the executive director of the Connecticut Office of Health Strategy and journalist Michael Savino, another CFOG board member. The annual conference is sponsored by the FOI Commission, CFOG, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists.

In the area of education and outreach, the commission has continued to receive a growing number of requests for speakers and workshops as part of its educational programs. The commission has provided an average of 108 speakers a year at a variety of venues over the past five years. This represents an increase of 35 to 40 speaking engagements a year since 2007. More than 100 speaking programs were offered in 2019. In addition, the commission fields numerous phone calls and e-mailed questions on a daily basis. In any given week, the commission can answer 100 to 150 calls or e-mails with questions from Connecticut’s citizens and public officials. As part of its educational outreach programs, the commission also continued to grow its community outreach program aimed at the state’s minority communities. Several presentations were made targeting Spanish-speaking citizens at various festivals and events. The program features Spanish-language videos and literature and is being distributed statewide. The commission hopes to expand upon its education and outreach efforts in the coming year, and anticipates working with CFOG to bring educational programs regarding open government and the First Amendment into middle and high schools across the state.