Restore public access to public hearings – Statement by CCFOI

June 4, 2018
Zachary Janowski
Michele Jacklin
Jeff Daniels

HARTFORD – The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI) today criticized General Assembly leaders for abandoning the long-held practice of transcribing public hearing testimony, further eroding the public’s ability to know what is happening at the State Capitol and continuing legislative efforts to close the window on government transparency.

To the surprise of many, the vast majority of transcripts from public hearings held during the recently adjourned 2018 legislative session are not available. Officials from the Office of Legislative Management and the House and Senate say that transcription services have fallen victim to budget cuts, with the elimination of the service expected to save about $100,000 annually. The decision apparently was made without public input and has been condemned by open-government advocates.

“Public hearings provide the first glimpse of the impetus for proposed legislation, what the relevant tensions and concerns are and the initial impressions of legislators considering them. As such, public hearing transcripts, which preserve the dialog and lines of inquiry, are a valuable component of legislative history and serve an important historical and archival function,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Most bills, including spending and tax proposals, are subject to public hearings at which state officials, special interests, lawmakers and, most importantly, citizens are able to voice their opinions. Although written testimony will continue to be available online, the give-and-take between committee members and those testifying will no longer be transcribed. The answers and commentary provided by lawmakers are often used to ascertain legislative intent. Moreover, not everyone who testifies provides written copies.

Murphy was a member of a task force that met in 2010 and was charged with making recommendations regarding the conversion of legislative records from paper to electronic form. According to the group’s final report, “the task force was presented with an overwhelming amount of testimony opposing elimination of public hearing transcriptions.”

Among those testifying were members of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, including the offices of the attorney general, chief court administrator, chief public defender and the Division of Criminal Justice. Others included the Connecticut Bar Association and the Southern New England Law Librarians Association. Ultimately, the vote to oppose elimination of the transcripts was unanimous.

Opposition has not abated and many open-government advocates view the decision by legislative leaders as yet another step in limiting accountability and curtailing transparency.

“The people of Connecticut deserve open and accountable government and this is leadership in the wrong direction,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut. “It has the practical effect of further isolating citizens from those in Hartford who are supposed to be acting on our behalf. We need more information — not less — about issues being debated in the General Assembly. It is unacceptable for decisions related to access to information be made in the dark, without public input.

Quickmire, Murphy and Zachary Janowski, president of CCFOI, are among those who are urging legislative leaders to reverse their decision.

“Legislative leaders need to restore public access to their public hearings,” said Janowski. “Why invite citizens to testify if that part of the process isn’t going to be available to them or to citizens who, in the future, are trying to understand why certain decisions were made? Making open government an option instead of a requirement will ensure that Connecticut residents won’t get transparency when it’s needed most: when lawmakers have something to hide.”

The elimination of transcripts comes in the wake of the legislature’s move to restrict the public’s ability to see their state government in action via CT-N. For 18 years, cameras operated by the Connecticut Public Affairs Network were focused on activities of all three branches of government, giving TV viewers unfiltered access to state government operations.

However, legislative leaders did not renew the contract in late 2017 and wrested control of the operation from CPAN, halting the airing of activities by the executive and judicial branches and training the cameras exclusively on the legislature. The move was seen as a public relations ploy designed to give lawmakers more exposure. The seizing of editorial control by legislative leaders also halted coverage of press conferences, state nominating conventions, the program “Capitol Reports,” which summarized the weekly activities of the legislature, and Election Night results.

Of this latest action, Murphy said: “Eliminating transcriptions from the public sphere is essentially like eliminating the corner piece of a puzzle. Lawyers, judges and members of the public often search for that piece to completely understand the topic they are researching — the puzzle’s picture. If the legislative hearing piece no longer resides in the puzzle box, legislative history and legislative intent, like the puzzle, will forever be incomplete.”