OP-ED | Shine a Light on Connecticut – CTNewsJunkie.com

3/14/16 – By Susan Bigelow

There’s no disinfectant like a little sunlight, as the saying goes, and that seems truer than ever in our age where there’s ever more information but also a growing tendency of government to keep information out of public hands. That worrisome trend must be reversed if we’re ever going to get the open, accountable government that we deserve. [Read More]

Transparency Compromise For UConn Foundation A Good Step – Hartford Courant

03/15/16 – By Editorial Board

The goal of transparency advocates to make the UConn Foundation subject to the state Freedom of Information Act would not be satisfied if pertinent legislation now before the General Assembly is enacted.

But the legislation represents progress in the long-running battle between transparency and secrecy at the foundation and should be passed.

The foundation, with a $383 million endowment, is UConn’s fund-raising arm. It is a nonprofit that uses $8 million a year in public funds to help it operate on behalf of Connecticut’s flagship public university. [Read More]

Press Release: Republican Senators Renew Call for UConn Budget Transparency

July 16, 2015
Republican Senators Renew Call for Greater Transparency in UConn Budget Process

Republican legislators today re-emphasized the need for more transparency in the University of Connecticut’s budget process.

The UConn Board of Trustees on June 24 adopted the university’s $1.3 billion budget without public discussion and after reviewing it behind closed doors for 90 minutes. This prompted Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore Kevin Witkos (R-Canton), and Sen. Michael McLachlan (R-Danbury) to announce their intention to propose legislation next year to bring about more transparency to the process.

“Former UConn trustee Louise Bailey is right,” said Witkos.  “She says UConn’s budget discussions should be done in public, not in private.  Surely UConn’s current board members, including Gov. Malloy, can see that the process cries out for more sunlight. There is a massive amount of taxpayer dollars involved.  This is our flagship university.  Why are major financial decisions and discussions taking place out of the public eye?  Republicans will be pushing for policies which let the sun shine in, and we hope our ideas will generate bipartisan support.”

“It’s time for UConn to draw the curtains back,” said McLachlan, the ranking Republican senator on the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.  “Taxpayers deserve a discussion that is out in the open.  They deserve to know how these dollars are being spent.  The public should be able to scrutinize the budget and provide input.  After all, it’s their money.”

“I hope the public can see a disturbing pattern here in state government which needs to be broken,” said Witkos, the ranking Republican senator on the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.  “Last month, Democrat lawmakers and Gov. Malloy crafted the $40 billion state budget behind closed doors.  They did it in darkness, without a single Republican in the room.  As we propose legislation to make the UConn budget process more transparent, we will also be reminding the public that the same transparency is desperately needed at the Connecticut State Capitol.”


Nicole Rall

Given Chance To Speak Publicly On Budget, Most UConn Trustees Pass – Hartford Courant

By Kathleen Megan

When UConn’s board of trustees approved a $1.3 billion budget with no public discussion, it was quickly clear that any questioning took place in an executive session attended by some of the board members.

Open government advocates raised concerns about the secret talks, arguing that taxpayers should be privy to debate over a significant spending plan they’ll be financing.

Weeks later, the vast majority of trustees are still not talking — or sticking to a narrow theme: They like the budget. And it’s better to consider it outside the public’s eye.

The Courant contacted 20 of the 21 trustees to inquire about whether they had any questions or concerns, and whether in hindsight they thought the process could have been more transparent. Of those contacted:

• Eight did not respond. One trustee, former UConn basketball star Donny Marshall, [Read More]

Editorial: Legislative session a mixed bag for freedom of information – Norwich Bulletin

Freedom of information has always been a fluid proposition, its execution shifting with court decisions, new laws and changing conditions and technology. After the General Assembly’s sessions this year, we perceive in the evolution of open information a big victory, a big whiff and a minor loss. The last bespeaks an undemocratic budget implementation practice that could presage more significant damage to government transparency in future sessions.

As we have noted, the Legislature laudably unraveled the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling that limited public access to police records. In so doing, legislators restored public accountability to police proceedings, thereby advancing the overall cause of freedom of information — or at least returning it to the level we had experienced before the ruling.

Legislators also struck out in their attempts to subject the UConn Foundation to public information law. The nonprofit fundraising arm of the state university enjoys exemption from the law’s requirements, to the disservice of UConn students in particular and Connecticut taxpayers on the whole.

The foundation’s justification [Read More]

Opinion: Apply FOI law to UConn Foundation – Republican-American

Last January, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst announced plans to end the university’s relationship with the UConn Alumni Association. Ms. Herbst has claimed this model of alumni engagement didn’t work. UConn had provided the Alumni Association with staff and some financial support.

This month, Alumni Association members voted, 77 percent to 23 percent, to formally dissolve the association. They also transferred the foundation’s $6 million in assets to the “private” UConn Foundation, which university trustees charged in March with coordinating alumni engagement. The $6 million figure does not include the Alumni House on UConn’s main campus in Storrs. For 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, the Alumni Association spent $2.7 million, made $200,000 on investments and had $9.2 million in assets.

In recent years, the foundation has served as a vehicle for taking care of university and foundation higher-ups, and it may have been used to buy UConn influence. It is conceivable that Alumni Association assets will be used for these purposes and not alumni engagement.

The UConn Foundation’s stated mission is to “solicit, [Read More]

Column: FOI complaint pits Wallingford non profit against town councilor – MyRecordJournal.com

Glenn Richter’s March 8 R-J “Perspective” column begins by using his Duck Test: “If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” But apparently, his real duck test has to be: ducks are birds; some ducks are white; so, therefore, all white birds are ducks.

That had to be what he really meant to make the Grand Canyon-wide leap of logic to conclude that Wallingford Center, Inc., and the UConn Foundation are comparable because they both claim exemption from the state Freedom of Information Act.

I am distressed by the simplistic characterization of WCI’s efforts to defend its independence as maintaining a “cloak of secrecy”. Complex issues such as this one all too often get reduced to misleading and politically lazy shorthand, and this is one of those cases. As one of those named in the FOI complaint, I offer these two points:

First of all, there is no “cloak of secrecy”: WCI presents a detailed budget to the Wallingford Town Council every single year, and appears before that body as often as requested. Its board meetings are not closed. WCI welcomes scrutiny, especially by Town Councilors and especially in the form of volunteering to help in its events, which several do. The fact is that Town Councilors themselves have been serving on our Board for years. What WCI objected to, and is spending many hours defending against, is the unwarranted assumption that its acceptance of public funds automatically means that it completely surrenders its rights as a private organization.

Councilor Fishbein contends that our acceptance of town funds automatically gives him the right to direct the organization’s business, and that, in conforming to his assumed entitlement, we are subject to all the regulations of a government agency. This includes public posting of all meetings and board meeting minutes. On the face of it, the public postings seem an innocuous request; but we concluded that, if we were to protect our rights as a private organization of volunteers, it was time to draw the line.

Secondly, comparing little ol’ WCI with the UConn Foundation is, well, bizarre. Wallingford Center, Inc., has an annual budget of $130,175 and its total assets consist of office furniture and supplies worth maybe $5,000. The UConn Foundation manages assets of $489 million and took in $81 million last year alone. WCI was created by private citizens to promote the vitality of the center of Wallingford and has never, ever been under the control of town government. The UConn Foundation’s mission “is to solicit, receive, invest, and administer gifts and financial resources from private sources for the benefit of all campuses and programs of the University of Connecticut.” In other words, it was established exclusively as an arm of a State of Connecticut agency, its public university system.

The UConn Foundation is under scrutiny because of some dubious decisions, such as lavishing $250,000 on Hillary Clinton for a 30-minute appearance and providing a significant portion of a questionable salary increase to UConn’s president while, at the same time, that person cried to the state legislature that the university is strapped. WCI, on the other hand, is under no such controversy, a fact that Fishbein admits as such.

The first sentence on the FOI website reads: “The Freedom of Information Commission’s mission is to administer and enforce the provisions of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, and to thereby ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut” [my emphasis]. In the dispute between WCI and Town Councilor Fishbein, the Freedom of Information Act is being turned on its head and being inappropriately used as a tool of governmental authority to insert itself into the operation of a private organization under the guise of “watching out for the taxpayer.” WCI is defending itself against this unwarranted and precedent-setting intrusion on behalf of all such nonprofit organizations.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.

OP-ED: UConn Foundation Can’t Pass Legal Test To Keep Secrecy – Hartford Courant

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, appears to have found the decisive argument for making the University of Connecticut Foundation subject to our freedom of information laws.

Willis, who is co-chairman of the Higher Education Committee, asked at a recent hearing whether the foundation should be subject to the 35-year-old state supreme court ruling in Board of Trustees of Woodstock Academy v. Freedom of Information Commission. “The precise question posed by this case,” said the court, is “whether a nominally private corporation which serves a public function may be considered a public agency for purposes of the FOIA.”

The court, in saying yes, used a “functional equivalent test”: 1) whether the entity performs a governmental function; 2) the level of government funding; 3) the extent of government involvement or regulation; and 4) whether the entity was created by the government.

The court also has ruled that all four criteria are not necessary for a finding of “functional equivalence.”

Former UConn President Homer Babbidge, in a letter to Alumni President Carl Nielsen in 1964, proposed the creation of the University of Connecticut Foundation and suggested that the Alumni Association earmark $5,000 toward the establishment of a foundation. Babbidge joined the foundation board, as did L. Richard Belden, a member of the General Assembly.

The Master Agreement of 1994 states: “The university designated the foundation to assume primary responsibility for the university’s development efforts.”

You can read on the foundation’s website today that it “operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut. As the primary fund-raising vehicle to solicit and administer private gifts and grants which will enhance the University’s mission, the Foundation supports the University’s pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, and public service.”

It seems to me that if it quacks like a duck it is a duck; that the foundation meets enough of the Woodstock criteria to be subject to the FOI laws.

Foundation officials testified at the committee hearing Feb. 26 that donations must remain secret or people wouldn’t donate. Yet at the top of the foundation’s website you can click on “Donor Recognition” where you find this:

“Public Recognition — Founders Society — The Founders Society honors UConn’s most generous benefactors: individuals and couples who have made significant contributions for the advancement of UConn’s educational and research programs. Donors become Founders Society members when they reach a level of $100,000 cumulative lifetime commitment to UConn. Members are publicly recognized as top donors to UConn, listed in an annual printed list distributed to all members, and included as special guests at events during the year.

“Charles Lewis Beach Society — Donors who make provisions for the Foundation in their wills or other planned gifts are named members of the Charles Lewis Beach Society. Members receive invitations to exclusive events, including a special luncheon each June.

“Leadership Annual Giving — … We are pleased to recognize annual donors whose generous contributions signify an investment in UConn’s growth and continuing ascent among the nation’s best public universities.”

If the legislature decides to allow donors, at their request, to remain private, that is one thing; but it is no reason to keep the foundation outside our FOI laws. After all, it is all about our premiere public university.

James H. Smith is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

Column: Why the cloak of secrecy? – MyRecordJournal.com

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is, for all intents and purposes, a duck. That’s the Duck Test, which is being applied right now at both the local and state levels.

In Wallingford, Town Councilor Craig Fishbein has asked the state Freedom of Information Commission to decide whether Wallingford Center Inc. is a public entity, and therefore covered by the Freedom of Information Act. In Hartford, some lawmakers are asking the same question about the University of Connecticut Foundation Inc. Both of these institutions maintain that they should be exempt from FOIA, so this is about the public’s right to know.

WCI defines itself as a “private, nonprofit organization” dedicated to “the beautification, preservation, promotion and economic revitalization of Wallingford’s center for the benefit of all the people of Wallingford.” The UConn Foundation says its mission is “to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut.”

Which is all well and good, but why do both these civic-minded outfits insist that they must operate behind a cloak of secrecy?

Fishbein argues that WCI gets most of its funding from the town and performs activities that were handled by town government in the past. Richard Gee, a lawyer for WCI, argues that the Center “may be an ally of Town Government,” but the town doesn’t control it, and “funding alone, without control, is not enough” to make it a public entity.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, says the UConn Foundation “really could be considered a functional equivalent of a government organization” because it serves a governmental function and it, too, receives public funding.

Although the general trend in this state — since 1975, when Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed the landmark Freedom of Information Act into law — has been toward open government, in recent years there have been setbacks, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s campaign to bring the formerly independent Freedom of Information Commission under executive control.

Fishbein has said he isn’t questioning “whether or not WCI does a good job,” but that “taxpayers are entitled to know the who, what and why of the use of their money.” In a situation where questions could easily arise as to who may benefit most from the Center’s actions, this seems like a reasonable proposition.

As for the Foundation, James H. Smith, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former executive editor of this newspaper, has pointed out that because it acts as a “surrogate” for UConn and “manages hundreds of millions of dollars,” the public “deserves detailed information” so it can judge the Foundation’s activities. While the claim has been made that openness will have “a chilling effect” on donations to the Foundation, discussions have already covered ways in which donor anonymity could be protected — which would put the focus on the what, where and when of its functions, rather than on the who — so it’s hard to see the sense of that argument. At the same time, it seems strange — and maybe even wrong — that more than a third of the university president’s annual compensation now comes from the UConn Foundation, a source that’s not the state of Connecticut and that’s not answerable to the people of the state of Connecticut.

When you’re working with public money and the public interest, what you do is public information. Or should be.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.