Is open government at risk in Connecticut?

Some Connecticut residents might take their Freedom of Information Commission for granted. It’s been in Hartford for 36 years, long enough so that many adults don’t remember how things went in matters of government accountability before the commission was created. But some do remember having no real recourse when government chose not to be transparent, no place to go to complain about lack of governmental openness and abuse of power. They’ll tell you it’s better now. Nothing’s perfect, of course, and those who have used the commission to file complaints about mishandling of public matters may find that even with the commission operating as its own entity, directly accessible, the process can be lengthy and cumbersome. Think of the case pending out of Cornwall where the former town highway department foreman has brought a complaint to the FOI Commission about the Board of Selectmen’s handling of executive session in reference to a personnel matter concerning him. As reported last week by Karen Bartomioli, the resolution of that case could take weeks or months, depending on the commission’s case load. There are several steps in the evaluation process, and the commission has a year in which to complete its analysis of a case and make a decision.Does that sound like too long a time frame? Well, as a result of state budget cuts that all can surely agree are unavoidable in some form, the Freedom of Information Commission may be folded into a group of agencies whose missions all differ. The former Freedom of Information Commission director of 30 years, Mitchell Pearlman, believes strongly that the consolidation would be a grave mistake, weakening and diminishing the commission, as he wrote in an opinion piece in The Hartford Courant last month and stated in an interview with The Connecticut Law Tribune this week.When a state agency loses funding and power, consolidates with others and is so dramatically weakened, its mission loses support and viability. Is government transparency and the oversight of it really an area that should be cut even as government is in transition at all levels due to decreased funding? If the Freedom of Information Commission is gutted, its role of keeping government accountable will be at risk. And if the commission is unable to process cases in at least as timely a way as it does now, citizens will be reluctant to take the time to bring complaints before it. The planned changes to the FOI Commission’s status as a state agency will start it down a path of irrelevancy, at a time when its mission is more relevant than ever.

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