Pick wisely in naming 'watchdog' boss

Selecting someone to head the Office of Governmental Accountability may appear to be a bureaucratic exercise, but it is nonetheless an important decision.

The state needs someone in the job who respects the autonomy of the "watchdog" agencies charged with assuring government officials conduct the people's business ethically and openly. The selection must instill confidence that a heavy thumb will never be placed on the scale to provide special protection to favored officials.

The governor will soon have that decision to make.

Things have not gone smoothly since the legislature created the Office of Governmental Accountability (OGA) in 2011 at the urging of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Promoted as a means of trimming costs, reducing the size of government and improving accountability, the change linked together nine formerly independent agencies. The budget for the merged office is $8.6 million, down 20 percent from pre-consolidation.

Gov. Malloy appointed David L. Guay as the first executive administrator of this new office. He is now leaving.

Mr. Guay had a tough assignment from the start. The concept for this new office had a fundamental flaw. It includes the three most important watchdogs in state government - the Freedom of Information Commission, charged with assuring documents and meetings are open to the public: the Elections Enforcement Commission, assigned to make sure candidates abide by campaign laws; and the Office of State Ethics.

The potential conflict is clear. Since the governor's office could be the subject of investigations or rulings by any of these watchdog agencies, how is it fair to have the governor's pick running them?

Mindful of this concern, but not wanting to defy their governor, the Democratic majorities cobbled together a clumsy compromise.

Along with the new office, it created a Government Accountability Commission, with one representative from each of the agencies - the others being the Contracting Standards Board, Board of Firearms and Permit Examiners, Judicial Review Council, Judicial Selection Commission and the offices of the Child Advocate and Victim Advocate.

The legislature gave this commission the authority to fire the executive administrator of the OGA for misconduct, a power intended to assure the governor's appointee would never try to improperly influence the actions or decisions of the agencies.

The commission reasoned that if it might ever consider firing the boss, it needed standards by which to judge him. Therefore, it undertook an evaluation of his performance, issuing a report that included criticism for failing to communicate better and providing recommendations for improvement.

Mr. Guay refused to cooperate, saying the commission below him on the organizational chart had no authority to assess his performance and that he answered to the governor.

It has not made for the best of working relationships. Fears about the potential for gubernatorial meddling remain.

Now arrives the chance for somewhat of a fresh start. Mr. Guay announced this week that he is stepping aside to take the job as executive director of the Contracting Standards Board. It is now the commission's job - the one that tried to evaluate Mr. Guay - to make recommendations to the governor for his successor.

"It's definitely an opportunity to start anew," Colleen Murphy, executive director of the FOI Commission told the Connecticut Mirror.

Likewise, Michael Brandi, executive director at Elections Enforcement, said he is "looking forward to a new beginning and a new executive administrator who will work with the watchdogs to strengthen our mission."

The best candidate for the post would be someone with a strong record of promoting ethics and openness in government.

Meanwhile, an opinion is pending from Attorney General George Jepsen as to whether the commission has the authority to evaluate the administrator. While the law does not speak to that point, the fact that it has the power to fire would suggest it has the authority evaluate.

If the attorney general reaches the same conclusion in his ruling, the next executive administrator should be open to its constructive criticism and willing to work with the commission.

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