Malloy plan criticized as undermining role of government watchdog agencies

Hartford - Representatives of many organizations at the legislature's Appropriations Committee on Friday testified against the governor's proposal to reorganize the Office of Governmental Accountability.

"These proposals will take away watchdog agencies' financial independence and effectively eliminate their ability to investigate other state agencies," said David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in written testimony.

House Bill 6354 proposes cutting funding to the state's watchdog agencies, while House Bill 6353 would give the Office of Policy and Management or the governor's policy office control over the watchdog agencies' budgets.

Two years ago, nine of the state's watchdog agencies were administratively consolidated and required to report to a politically appointed executive administrator. Now the governor has proposed transferring all of these watchdog agencies' fiscal, information technology and communications staff to the OGA, according to his budget proposal.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also proposed realigning all OGA legal staff and eliminating two OGA positions that are currently vacant. This would save about $192,000 a year, according to his proposed budget.

Watchdog agencies such as the Freedom of Information Commission, the Elections Enforcement Commission and the Office of State Ethics are used to protect citizens' rights, McGuire said.

"Any action that weakens them injures the public, impairs justice and, in some cases, threatens civil rights," he said.

A new coalition - Advocates for Accountable Government - was recently formed to address the budget cuts to watchdog agencies, said Wade Gibson, senior policy fellow for Connecticut Voices for Children, in a press release.

The group aims to ensure that government conducts business openly, holds fair elections and holds public officials to ethical standards, Wade said.

Members include groups that advocate for government accountability, civil liberties, campaign finance, citizen participation, legal assistance and public policy, according to the release.

Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information President James Smith said the council fully supported the coalition's position.

"We have never felt more strongly opposed to a proposed provision before this legislature than we do at the present one stripping the state watchdog agencies of their autonomy," Smith said in written testimony.

These agencies' credibility is essential to public confidence in government, he said.

Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission is the court of appeals for citizens who believe they have been wrongly denied access to public meetings and documents, he said.

"Like the courts, the FOIC must be - and be perceived as - independent and above political manipulation," Smith said.

These bills would give the current governor and the subsequent governor the power, through an appointee, to stop an investigation, McGuire said.

"It is inevitable that we will one day have a dishonest governor, or simply one who has made a mistake," McGuire said.

Without independence, these watchdog agencies will not be able to restrain executive power, he said.

Chris VanDeHoef, executive director for the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association, said in written testimony that the governor's proposals would make these watchdog agencies another "political arm" to serve the chief executive officer or state of Connecticut.

This "is in opposition to everything these agencies were created to be and stand for decades ago," VanDeHoef said.

Giving a political appointee authority over the execution of information requests before these agencies raises a high level of discomfort for the print industry, he said.

"How long before an Executive Administrator shuts down the 'wrong' information from getting out?" he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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