The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Daniel Klau | NEFAC, Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information
March 12 through 18 is Sunshine Week — a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government. Open government organizations around the country are sponsoring a veritable cornucopia of events, panel discussions and writings, such as op-eds, to fulfill their educational mission. Given the new presidential administration’s open hostility to a free press, Sunshine Week could not come at a more opportune time.
As a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, and as president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the state of freedom of information in Connecticut. The good news is that CCFOI, along with the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, are actively engaged in promoting open government and supporting the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Just last week, CFOG, working in conjunction with journalists and lawyers from around the state, commenced a series of educational programs, in local high schools and state colleges, intended to heighten students’ appreciation of the First Amendment and government transparency.
Additionally, CCFOI representatives, including myself, have spent considerable time at the state legislature promoting open government legislation and opposing legislation that would weaken the state Freedom of Information Act. For example, one state representative has introduced a bill that would impose a $125 filing fee on any person who files a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission. The intent of the bill is to reduce the number of frivolous complaints. But the effect of the bill would be to chill ordinary citizens from exercising their rights under the FOIA. CCFOI opposes the bill, which would use a “hammer” to solve a small problem that really needs a scalpel. CCFOI is working with the commission to draft an alternative proposal that would accomplish the same objective as the original bill, but would only affect a very limited number of individuals who use the FOIA to harass and annoy state and local officials.
The bad news is that Connecticut faces serious fiscal challenges, as the expenses of operating a state government continue to climb, while revenues remain flat. Every state agency has felt the legislature’s budget axe, including the FOIC. The FOIC has lost nearly 40 percent of its staff in the past several years. Further budget cuts will likely leave the FOIC unable to fulfill its statutory mission. Last year, CCFOI was able to help the commission retain its public education office position, as well as fight back an attempt by the Executive Branch to make a mid-year adjustment to the FOIC’s budget. This year, CCFOI is working hard to persuade legislators that the FOIC should be exempted from any further budget cuts. A robust FOIC is essential to meaningful enforcement of FOIA, which is, in turn, essential to an honest and open government.
When Connecticut Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed the state FOIA into law in 1975, she created one of the strongest open government laws in the country. During Sunshine Week, open government organizations in Connecticut will work hard to keep Ella’s dream of a vibrant FOIA alive and well.
Daniel Klau is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.