Consolidating nine watchdog agencies under one umbrella was awkward to begin with, but the recent draft report from the new head of the Office of Government Accountability caused even more anxiety amongst the agencies Tuesday.
The nine agencies, which fought and failed to remain autonomous during the legislative session have been forced to adjust to a new normal. The new normal required the three largest agencies—State Elections Enforcement, the Office of State Ethics, and the Freedom of Information Commission—to give up most of their administrative assistants to the Office of Government Accountability.
And while it’s always difficult to adjust to new circumstances, the draft report authored by David Guay, the new executive administrator of the Office of Government Accountability, seemed to suggest he no longer wanted to report to the nine agency heads or give them the power to evaluate his performance.
The draft report was described by some as a “power grab” which would consolidate more power with Guay and less with the nine agency heads currently overseeing his work.
But Guay, who was questioned about the report Tuesday, said the intention of the report was not to consolidate power or take away the independence that each agency cherishes. It was to seek clarity.
“I’ll report to whoever I need to report to,” Guay said. “I don’t fear an evaluation. In fact I welcome the evaluation. I think I will ace my evaluation, I will exceed their expectations.”
But Stephen Cashman, chairman of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, one of the nine agencies, said he feels like the report was drafted in such a way that it “laments” the independence of the agencies.
“This report is alarming,” Cashman told Guay.
“I think this report seems to suggest your overriding desire not to have nine independent agencies under one umbrella, but to have nine divisions under you,” he added.
In the draft report Guay suggested “creating a single agency with nine divisions” and noted “it would be helpful if there was a uniform time and attendance policy.”
Guay said he wasn’t making recommendations in the draft report, but was pointing out concerns raised over the past few months. He said the group was reading “too much” into the report, which he says he very carefully worded.
“Giving the GAC [Government Accountability Commission] the authority to evaluate and possibly terminate a governor’s appointee appears to be inconsistent with the appointment of other gubernatorial appointees,” Guay wrote in the report.
The watchdogs said this suggested Guay wants to be treated like other agency heads when the construction of the Office of Government Accountability is an “odd bird” in that the heads of the nine agencies decide Guay’s fate.
But an even bigger concern than who has the power to hire and fire the head of the Office of Government Accountability was the budget process.
State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said she and others under the OGA umbrella worked hard to make sure that when the consolidation was passed it maintained the authority over its own budget proposals to the legislature.
She said it was her understanding that Guay would act simply as a pass through for the budget requests.
“I’m not sure the language reads exactly as you may think,” Guay said. “It may provide veiled authority, but authority to the executive director.”
He said he considers changing an agency’s budget request a “nuclear option” and would only do it if there was “real” disagreement over a specific issue.
He said it’s not an option he wants to use, but he believes it does exist under the current language of the statute.
One of the other concerns raised in the report was the cross-training of attorneys that work for the nine agencies.
Jim Smith, the former editor of the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press and president of the Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information, said Monday that you can’t have an attorney fighting for open records with the Freedom of Information Commission one day, and the next day have them fight for secrecy on behalf of the Office of the Victim Advocate.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information opposed the merger of the agencies from the very outset, Smith said.
He said the “pennies they saved” weren’t worth the headaches the consolidation caused, but it was like trying to stop of speeding train.
Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the Freedom of Information Commission, said since the consolidation started she’s lost staff and the cases are beginning to get backed up.
Guay claimed that was the first time he was hearing Murphy’s concern. She reminded him that was not the case and that it was expressed to him in the past.
Guay reminded the commission that for the last 12 weeks he’s made himself available “at a moments notice” to address their individual concerns.
However, not everybody is struggling with the consolidation. State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz said she was nervous about the merger at the beginning but has come to appreciate it because she now has more access to staff than she did before.
The consolidation seemed to be appreciated by the smaller agencies, but the larger ones like the SEEC, FOIC, and Ethics were struggling to see the benefits since they seem to have lost the most.
After nearly two hours of discussion Tuesday, the group decided to reconvene next week and share each agency’s input on the consolidation to date. The experiences will be combined with Guay’s report, which will be submitted the legislature’s committees of cognizance by Jan. 2.
The agencies under the Office of Government Accountability include the Office of State Ethics; the State Elections Enforcement Commission; the Freedom of Information Commission; Judicial Review Council; Judicial Selection Commission; Board of Firearms Permit Examiners; Office of the Child Advocate; Office of the Victim Advocate; and the State Contracting Standards Board.
Click here to watch the meeting on CT-N.