While the ongoing fiscal crisis may necessitate some governmental streamlining, the current structure of the proposed Office of Governmental Accountability does this at too high a cost for the citizens of Connecticut.
The Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) is one of Connecticut’s most effective and widely-modeled agency structures. Its external appeals model-which allows parties to appeal to an independent agency that handles information access disputes-has won worldwide recognition. When Mexico was setting up its Federal Institute for Access to Public Information, it sent analysts to Connecticut to learn about the FOIC. Both Scotland and the United Kingdom also studied Connecticut’s information access laws before passing their own.
The budget plan proposed by the Governor and approved by the General Assembly threatens the FOIC’s vital independence by merging it into a larger, less specialized Office of Governmental Accountability. This move would impair the FOIC’s core functions by limiting its independence and creating very serious conflicts of interest within the agency itself.
For example, the proposed merger would remove vital safeguards against retaliatory budget manipulation. Because of attempts at political manipulation by previous governors, the FOIC’s budget has been protected by statute, helping ensure that the FOIC could adjudicate information access disputes without succumbing to political pressure.
The proposed merger would instead give the governor control over the budget of the entire Office of Governmental Accountability. Discarding this safeguard threatens to turn the FOIC from an effective watchdog into a government lapdog.
The proposed merger would also see the FOIC controlled by a single gubernatorial appointee, further eroding the Commission’s independence. And it would wrest essential functions-like investigating FOIA complaints and promulgating information access rules and regulations-out of the hands of the FOIC’s specialized professional staff.
Worst of all, the proposed merger would inhibit the affected agencies’ ability to properly monitor each other. This is particularly true with regard to the FOIC, which adjudicates disputes between various governmental groups, including others involved with the merger. The new Office of Governmental Accountability would find itself in the uncomfortable and ethically untenable position of having to be judge, defendant, investigator, and rule-maker in a number of Freedom of Information cases. Indeed, within the past six months, the FOIC has decided four cases in which the respondent was the Office of State Ethics, and at least one such case is currently under appeal. If the merger passes, FOIC will share both an office and a staff with the ethics office, raising the question of whether the proposed consolidation would result in a single agency continually at odds with itself.
It is clear that the proposed merger poses a grave threat to government transparency, accountability, and accessibility. Nonetheless, if the FOIC is to be merged into a larger agency structure, it must at least be done in a way that preserves the agency’s crucial independence and vital procedural safeguards. Most importantly, regulations for the new agency must be written by individuals specializing in freedom of information, and the budget of the agency must be separated out so as to shield the agency from political reprisals.
These simple steps will help ensure that citizens may continue to freely access public information and hold those in power accountable for their actions. This, in turn, will guarantee that freedom of information remains an important value of the State of Connecticut, and not merely subject to the whims of those presently in charge.