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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Public job, public information

    We live in an age formerly unthinkable in the United States of America, in which poll workers — of all people — are seeking protection against violence and harassment because some Americans have bought into false claims that our voting systems are untrustworthy.

    Jurors, who are likewise citizens performing their civic duty, risk becoming targets because their verdicts are unpopular with certain Americans who resort to intimidation.

    Doing their duty right out in public view, neither group had reason to fear the motivations of fellow citizens whose obligations and opportunities are the same as their own.

    It is an unsavory stew. We would have thought that the only people who would cook up this mess are those who have thrown out the prized recipe for trust in our democracy, making use of social media to stir up distaste and anger.

    Nonetheless, the dangers that poll workers and jurors could face from short-term, civic roles do not justify extending secrecy to additional classes of state workers who work year-round for the public and are seeking to keep their information and work out of the public eye.

    Among the latest amendments being proposed by the Government Administration and Elections Committee co-chairs, state Sen. Mae Flexer of Killingly and state Rep. Matt Blumenthal of Stamford, is one that would “exempt from disclosure records concerning studies and research conducted by faculty and staff of public universities.”

    Members of the public should be asking themselves: Do you want to be told you have no right to know what faculty researchers are working on?

    The fact that public funds pay the salaries of public employees is part of the foundation of the state’s Freedom of Information law, a statute that has provided a model for other states and even other democracies. More fundamentally, having and keeping a democracy requires an informed citizenry.

    There are benefits to earning a living from state employment, and they sometimes exceed comparable compensation packages in the private sector. Job security and the benefits of membership in strong labor unions are big ones.

    Yet there are obligations that state law has put upon its employees because they are public servants. Transparency is the most significant because it is the gateway to all other forms of supervision and accountability. The FOI statute imposes transparency as a condition of employment for all but a few exempted categories of government employees whom the legislature has deemed need shielding for their safety and that of their families.

    All faculty and staff at the University of Connecticut and in the state university and community college systems are state employees whose names and roles are public information. Now, at the behest of union leadership, the GAE committee is asking the full legislature to veil their work.

    These are not secret defense projects — already shielded by federal law — and probably a relatively small number of research topics would prompt an outcry, even in these contentious times. But to throw a blanket over the names of all researchers at a research university is to cross over into waters where we, as a state proud to be part of a democracy, should not be wading.

    Evidently, in the minds on the GAE committee, the days are gone when a bioscience researcher at UConn would proudly announce the results of animal cloning. Maybe they worry about the safety of a history professor teaching about a controversial figure. The notion of keeping names from the public is ludicrous, considering that the “publish or perish” culture of academia will sooner or later have those names prominently displayed in scholarly journals.

    As always, the question of transparency comes down to “What is it you are trying to hide?” In our divisive times, that implies a second question: “Who are you trying to hide from?”

    Presumably, the years they spent earning advanced degrees taught faculty members about the heavy responsibility academic freedom entails. It is meant to be a search for facts and enlightenment. It is not meant to keep the rest of us in the dark.

    The state Freedom of Information Commission has opposed this bill as it did last year. The commission is right.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.