Advocates fear budget cutbacks endanger independence of Connecticut’s FOI Commission

With states under pressure to trim an estimated $180 billion from their budgets, openness in government can begin to look like an unaffordable luxury item.

Advocates for sunshine in government are closely watching the statehouse in Connecticut, where new Gov. Dannel Malloy has called for $758 million in cuts that includes a bite out of the state’s well-respected Freedom of Information Commission.

The Connecticut FOI Commission serves as kind of a buffer between state agencies and the courts, enabling citizens who believe they’ve been unlawfully denied access to government information to have their complaints heard quickly, at low cost, by people with expertise in FOI law. Student journalists have been the beneficiaries of this expertise — in 2008, the Commission ruled that Yale University must disclose police incident reports like any other police department with state-delegated arrest powers.

Gov. Malloy’s 2011-12 budget calls for consolidating the FOI Commission with other “good government” agencies –including the Office of State Ethics, the Elections Enforcement Commission, and the Judicial Review Council — into a single entity, the Office of Governmental Accountability.

Proponents have said that savings will be realized in part by merging the legal counsels’ offices for the agencies, which raises the prospect that some attorney jobs will be declared redundant and eliminated. This worries open-government advocates, who fear a loss of specialized knowledge if the same attorneys are asked to juggle elections, ethics, and open government law.

Others have expressed concern that the head of the new Office of Governmental Accountability will be a gubernatorial patronage appointee (the director now is accountable to an appointed five-member commission). Telling government agencies that they’re wrong and the public is right can be politically sensitive business. A director who is subject to removal at the governor’s whim may lack the independence to make tough rulings.

Among the skeptics is Mitchell W. Pearlman, the Commission’s longtime executive director and chief legal counsel, who testified before a joint Appropriations Committee hearing that the governor’s reorganization plan would “effectively gut some of the best and most well-regarded agencies of state government”:

Sometimes bigger is better and cost effective. Sometimes it isn’t. This is one instance where bigger is neither better nor cost effective.

Connecticut’s legislature will be in session through June 8, so there is ample time for the governor’s proposal to be debated and modified. The FOI Commission is a very small-dollar item in the state’s $17.9 billion budget, so discussion of the reorganization may be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event.

Connecticut is not alone in blaming budget exigency for retrenching on the public’s ability to obtain records. Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, has ordered agencies to start charging for the time they spend retrieving and copying documents, as a way of closing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

It is always cheaper (in the short run, at least) to operate government with reduced public accountability. But the loss in legitimacy — and at times, in honesty — cannot be readily valued on a ledger. Those who care about transparency in government will need to be extra-vigilant in this legislative season to make sure that openness is treated as a necessity, not an extravagance.