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Force UConn to keep budget debate open

Any organization doing the public's business, which is another way of saying spending the public's money, should understand and appreciate the need to keep the public informed about how its business is being conducted and its money is being spent.

This view is apparently not shared by the University of Connecticut and its governing body. On June 24, the university's board of trustees adopted a nearly $1.3 billion budget for the next fiscal year, increasing spending in troubled economic times by $103.7 million or nearly 9 percent. It's worth reminding you that $400 million will come from the state, while much of the rest must be supplied through tuition paid by debt-laden Connecticut students and their families.

So one would think there would be a public interest in how the board came to approve such a big spending increase.

Yet this budget was discussed, amended and finalized behind closed doors during a 5½-hour executive session of the board's Financial Affairs Committee in May. That was followed by a 90-minute review by the board — also behind closed doors — and the formal adoption in a public meeting that had no public discussion. A UConn spokeswoman points out the budget, with "hundreds of highly detailed pages of supporting and explanatory documents" was made public and online five days before the board's vote. By then, it was a done deal with little time for much scrutiny.

But you needn't be concerned about this secrecy because, as UConn President Susan Herbst assured reporters, that's the way it's always been done. If so, it's not the way it should be done in the future.

State law exempts drafts of public records and discussions of them from public disclosure if the agency doing the drafting decides the public interest is better served by withholding them. UConn trustees have made that determination and "the budget is a draft until the board acts on it," said Richard Orr, the university's general counsel.

In his blog, "Appealingly Brief!," attorney Daniel Klau, who specializes n First Amendment law and the Connecticut FOI statute, eviscerates the UConn board's excuse for keeping its deliberations secret.

"To be sure, the development of a budget document occurs in many stages, and no doubt the document goes through many drafts before one is finally presented to the board of trustees for consideration and debate.  There are valid reasons why those early drafts need not be disclosed.  But once a budget document gets to the point that it is distributed to the board of trustees for debate, it is no longer a 'preliminary draft.'  Further, it is certainly not a document about which one can say with a straight face that the public interest in non-disclosure clearly outweighs the interest in disclosure," writes Mr. Klau.

The state university system, which has nearly three times as many students as UConn's 30,000, apparently wasn't aware of the dodge employed by its smaller sister institution. It held its budget sessions for three days — in public — before its board of regents voted its approval of its slightly smaller $1.2 billion budget to serve its nearly 90,000 students. This budget, for so many more students, might have been crafted more carefully due to public view.

For decades, the General Assembly has treated UConn like a favorite child, especially by allowing the University of Connecticut Foundation, UConn's fund-raising arm, to retain its exemption from the state's freedom of information laws. Legislators have succumbed to the bogus claims of its lobbyists that making foundation activities public would have a chilling effect on those shy millionaires and billionaires whose names grace some university buildings.

But the secret way President Herbst says the budget has always been crafted was finally noticed by some legislators this year and they don't like it. Republicans were the first to react with Sen. Michael McLachlan, ranking member of the powerful Government Administration and Elections Committee, saying he plans to introduce remedial legislation next session. His colleague, Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, points out, "We as legislators spend months listening to stakeholders, including UConn, before we adopt a budget."

And the influential House chair of the Higher Education Committee, Democrat Roberta Willis, allowed that there were times when budget discussions need to be private, "but doing an entire budget in private is not recommended."

Given the game playing, the legislature apparently has to tighten up the language describing a draft document. That's one lesson the General Assmebly needs to learn from our state university.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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