HARTFORD, CT — Good government advocates continued this week to criticize legislative leaders for ending the practice of transcribing public hearings, but at least two legislative leaders have defended it.
Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Tuesday that the public hearings will still be recorded and if a member of the public wants a copy then the Office of Legislative Management will provide them a copy on a compact disc for free.
“If they want it transcribed there will be a fee,” Fasano added.
The decision to end the longstanding practice of transcribing public hearings was first reported by CTNewsJunkie.com on May 31. The decision saves the legislature $100,000 a year.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz has previously said “Much of the testimony presented at public hearings are already being submitted in written form and posted online, thus the need for paying for a full transcribing is somewhat redundant and not cost efficient.”
Fasano said the decision to cut public hearing transcriptions was a trade-off.
“We felt if we’re going to transcribe something for legislative history then it makes more sense to transcribe the committee meetings,” Fasano said.
Currently, there are only minutes of committee meetings and sometimes there’s video if the legislature’s public television station, CT-N, covers it. But there has never been a transcript provided of committee hearings.
However, public hearing transcripts are also valuable.
“Public hearings provide the first glimpse of the impetus for proposed legislation, what the relevant tensions and concerns are and the initial impressions of legislators considering them,” Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, said. “As such, public hearing transcripts, which preserve the dialog and lines of inquiry, are a valuable component of legislative history and serve an important historical and archival function.”
Fasano said he’s under the impression the audio files will continue to be stored. How it will be stored and how much that will cost was unclear.
But advocates for open government still worry.
“Eliminating transcriptions from the public sphere is essentially like eliminating the corner piece of a puzzle,” Murphy said. “Lawyers, judges and members of the public often search for that piece to completely understand the topic they are researching—the puzzle’s picture. If the legislative hearing piece no longer resides in the puzzle box, legislative history and legislative intent, like the puzzle, will forever be incomplete.”
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut, said “The people of Connecticut deserve open and accountable government and this is leadership in the wrong direction.”
“It has the practical effect of further isolating citizens from those in Hartford who are supposed to be acting on our behalf,” Quickmire added. “We need more information—not less—about issues being debated in the General Assembly. It is unacceptable for decisions related to access to information be made in the dark, without public input.
Quickmire, Murphy and Zachary Janowski, president of Connecticut Council on the Freedom of Information, are among those who are urging legislative leaders to reverse their decision.
“Legislative leaders need to restore public access to their public hearings,” Janowski said. “Why invite citizens to testify if that part of the process isn’t going to be available to them or to citizens who, in the future, are trying to understand why certain decisions were made? Making open government an option instead of a requirement will ensure that Connecticut residents won’t get transparency when it’s needed most: when lawmakers have something to hide.”
Other legislative leaders did not respond to requests to comment on the subject.