CT lawmakers trying to eclipse sunshine laws

03/27/2024

By Michele Jacklin

Read the full op-ed here.

Last year’s all-out assault by the General Assembly on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the law that shines sunlight on state and local government activities, has escalated into this year’s nuclear annihilation.

The legislature, led by the Government Administration and Elections Committee, has taken a bombs-away approach to the FOIA, the 49-year-old law that has given full-throated meaning to government transparency and the public’s right-to-know. Connecticut’s FOIA has been such an exemplar of how to demystify government that it has been emulated by other states and nations.

But now the FOIA is being blasted to oblivion by lawmakers who unfortunately think that by making information and government off limits, they are acting in the public’s best interest. Where once there were five explicit exemptions in the FOIA, there are now more than 30. And if the GAE Committee, whose chairs — state Sen. Mae Flexer of Killingly and state Rep. Matt Blumenthal of Stamford — are openly hostile to the FOIA, gets its way, the number of exemptions will balloon to nearly 40.

Flexer, Blumenthal and others foolishly believe that if they shield information — such as the residential addresses of public employees — they have, in fact, protected them. But what lawmakers have done is provide a false sense of security. In this Internet age, even the Luddites among us know that you can conduct an online search and uncover a trove of  personal information quicker than you can cry “bombs away.”

Ironically, on the day that the residential address bill was aired in a GAE hearing, a letter was received by tens of thousands of current and former employees of public higher education. The letter from the financial services company that handles the retirement accounts of the employees said it had been the target of a “cybersecurity incident” and that the types of data that might have been “impacted” could include names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, life insurance policy numbers, financial account numbers and more. Yet, in a head-scratching move, the GAE Committee approved the residential address bill anyway.

It was disheartening last year when lawmakers approved, and Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law, a bill that exempted whistleblower complaints from public disclosure. Do you know that allegations of government wrongdoing are now hidden? Is there a more Draconian exemption than one concealing claims of government abuse, misspending and corruption?

Yes there is. Take, for example, the bill to exclude from public access the mountains of research, data and reports that exists in the universe of public higher education. To be clear, the faculty members who would be covered by this legislation work on billion-dollar campuses paid for by the public, the research they perform is paid for with public monies and their salaries are paid by the public. Yet the public be damned.

The principal proponent of the bill, UConn’s faculty union, alleges that some faculty members have been harassed. But there is little evidence of that and no evidence that the alleged targets have used what’s known as the “vexatious complaint” provision of the FOIA, which could protect them.

Therein lies much of the problem. Whenever a case arises in which a person or group feels aggrieved, the knee-jerk reaction is to enact a new and specific exemption to the FOIA instead of relying on the existing statute to resolve the problem.

There’s also a bill from the governor’s budget office that would require the public to navigate the state’s labyrinthine bureaucracy to obtain what is now easily accessible information, and another that would allow certain voter registry information to be mostly off limits except for  political purposes.

And there’s a horrific bill that would exempt footage of the inside of a private residence from the information that police officers must make public when using body cameras. How quickly lawmakers have forgotten the Louisville, Ky., case of Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was fatally shot when seven police officers forced entry in her apartment as part of a drug  investigation. It was the wrong apartment. Louisville later paid Taylor’s family $12 million and four officers were charged with federal felonies.

This is just a sampling of the anti-FOIA bills that are awaiting action by the House and Senate. The sun is setting on the public’s right-to-know as lawmakers detonate one bomb after another.

Michele Jacklin is legislative co-chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.