Sick of playing defense against efforts to erode the state Freedom of Information Act, an open government advocacy group has begun asking candidates to sign a pledge to support the public document disclosure law.
“Freedom of information and the public’s right to know about Connecticut state and municipal governments have been under increasing attack in recent years. So the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information urges you to take the Public Official’s Pledge for Open and Accountable Government,” Jim Smith, CCFOI’s president, said in a letter to candidates.
Smith, a former newspaper editor who heads the open government group, said he mailed about 360 letters Wednesday. The pledge letters went to every candidate for the General Assembly, as well as each candidate for the state’s constitutional offices.
The pledge asks candidates to oppose weakening the state’s public document disclosure law and require that any attempts to weaken the law be subjected to public hearings and debate before they are passed.
“There’s been too many midnight amendments where that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Let’s at least make sure that it gets a public debate.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy changed the Freedom of Information law following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The law barred the disclosure of certain law enforcement images, among other changes. It was negotiated behind closed doors and then passed through both chambers of the legislature in less than an hour. The bill never received a public hearing.
During the next session, CCFOI lobbied against a bill based on recommendations from a panel tasked with balancing the public’s right to know with the privacy of crime victims. The task force recommended more changes to the FOI law. Ultimately, the legislature declined to make those changes.
Smith said open government advocates were hoping to take a more proactive approach to preserving the law.
“We’ve been tossing around things we could do that would put us on the offense. We play defense way too much. We’re always fighting proposals that try to shut the books, so we try to think of ways to be proactive,” he said.
Asked about the letter, Mark Bergman, a spokesman for Malloy’s campaign, responded with an email saying the governor would sign the pledge.
Meanwhile, Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, said Foley has a policy of not signing pledges. But Cooper said Foley “agrees with the provisions of the pledge” and supports the Freedom of Information Act.
“Tom Foley believes in open, transparent government and has publicly opposed Governor Malloy’s many attempts to weaken or sidestep the FOI law,” Cooper said. In his email, Cooper included a list of Malloy’s “worst offenses against FOI and transparency.”
Malloy has been at odds with open government advocates at times during his first term. Over the summer, Smith called upon the Malloy administration to release documents related to a taxpayer-funded charter school organization under investigation following revelations about its CEO, who failed to disclose his criminal history among other things.
The group also opposed Malloy’s decision during his first year in office to consolidate the state Freedom of Information Commission and eight other agencies under the Office of Government Accountability.
Smith acknowledged the group’s sometimes rocky relationship with the Democratic governor, but said CCFOI has also commended Malloy when he’s taken steps in favor of transparency. He pointed to an executive order establishing a website tracking how economic development dollars are spent. The order mirrored legislation advocated by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
“We’ve praised him when he’s done right and we’ve always criticized him and other public officials when we don’t like what they’ve done,” he said.