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Taking On The Secrecy Of ‘Personnel Matters’

By Chris Powell

A welcome blow has been struck against the worst non-sequitur in government in Connecticut, the claim that public officials can’t answer questions about a “personnel matter.”

Marc Ryan, secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, having consulted with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in the case of a state trooper who is challenging some discipline, has just proclaimed that henceforth all state labor relations grievance hearings will be held in public, with notice posted so the public and news reporters may attend.

This may surprise many municipal and state officials who offer only the “personnel matter” dodge when something is wrong, like the Tolland school superintendent who recently refused to explain his discipline of a high school teacher who had shown his class a film about censorship that included pornographic images.

While state law exempts certain government documents from disclosure, it doesn’t forbid public officials from disclosing those documents or otherwise accounting for their handling of a “personnel matter” or anything else. Of course nearly everything in government is a personnel mater to some extent. Now that the state Office of Policy and Management has forsworn any “personnel matter” non-sequitur, all other agencies of government should too.

There is actually hope that something like that could happen, for Governor Rowland has become the first governor since Ella T. Grasso to propose advancing freedom of information.

Upon taking office in 1975 Grasso was the leading supporter of what became Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. Since then the General Assembly has loaded the law with special-interest exemptions to disclosure. But now Rowland wants the law strengthened to cover state and municipal economic development agencies, which spend a lot of public money and presume to rearrange whole communities but have not had to account for themselves. The disposition of public money should be public, Rowland says, and his administration is working on legislation to make it so.

The executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, Mitchell E. Pearlman, says such legislation might be the biggest gain for open government in Connecticut since the original law was passed. This is great but it should be only a start.

With the tax issue, Rowland has shown that a governor has the unique power to change the whole political dialogue. Under Rowland’s recent predecessors, Connecticut’s agenda was entirely a matter of which taxes to raise and which spending programs to create. Now the agenda is a matter of which taxes to cut, and foremost on Rowland’s agenda is Connecticut’s grossly disproportionate gasoline tax. He never will fulfill the hyperbolic proposal of his 1994 campaign for governor, repealing the state income tax, but he still may be providing more tax relief than the state has ever seen.

The same power to change the dialogue might be used by the governor on freedom of information. Instead of continuing to oblige the various special interests by forbidding the public from entering their corners of government, the governor might seek to remove other disgraceful impediments to the public’s right to know.

The case of the Tolland teacher who apparently displayed pornography in his class illustrates one of those impediments: the exemption from the right-to-know law for teacher evaluation and disciplinary files.

The teacher seems to have been suspended, and while everyone knows it involved the film, there has been no official explanation. The explanation presumably is spelled out in the superintendent’s order of suspension, but as a teacher evaluation document it doesn’t have to be disclosed, and school officials won’t talk about it, though the law allows them to.

Teachers are the only pubic employees in Connecticut to enjoy this exemption from accountability; by law the evaluation and disciplinary records of all other public employees are public. Teachers won this exemption 15 years ago not on the merits of the issue but only because of the political influence of their union.

So in Connecticut someone whose child is abused by, say, a police officer who falsely accuses him of a crime has the right to inspect the officer’s disciplinary records, but someone whose child is abused by a teacher displaying pornography in class does not have the right to inspect the teacher’s disciplinary records.

Another special-interest exemption to the FOI law that is especially ripe for repeal involves the University of Connecticut Foundation. While it raised money in the name of the state university and uses university staff and facilities, by law the foundation is not a public agency and thus doesn’t have to disclose what it does.

Of course this is ridiculous on its face. The only reason ever offered for the exemption is that some donors to the foundation seek anonymity. (Nearly all donors are glad to be thanked publicly, and indeed the foundation’s annual report identifies hundreds of them for every one listed as “anonymous”). But the foundation could be designated a public agency and compelled to follow the right-to-know law and, if necessary, given a narrow exemption for anonymous contributions.

Now that the basketball fever that has won special treatment for UConn is wearing off amid the financial disaster at the UConn Health Center, for which the General Assembly is being asked to appropriate an emergency $20 million, legislators may realize that UConn needs more accountability in all respects. That accountability should include the UConn Foundation.

(Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.)

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