Category Archives: Government

They are Sworn to Uphold the Law. So How about Obeying the Freedom of Information Act.

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

A number of our law-enforcement employees – those folks who are paid by us for the sole purpose of serving us – have been working extra-hard lately devoting scarce time and resources to blocking our ability to hold them accountable.

For the second time this month, the state Freedom of Information Commission has had to waste its time instructing civil servants, once again, that we, as the bosses of every single person in public employment, have a legal right to know how our employees are performing the jobs we pay them to do.

And now comes word that the under-resourced Commission will have to do it again sometime down the road, based on the groundless refusal by state police to release an internal affairs investigation of two troopers who are accused in a civil suit of trumping up charges against an East Hartford man.

These issues have been settled dozens and dozens and dozens of time by the Freedom of Information Commission. And The Scoop has written on the topic multiple times. But while public employees and their lawyers are obligated to know and obey the laws of the state, the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act just don’t seem to sink in.

So as we’ve done before, here’s yet another primer on why it’s not an invasion of privacy when we the bosses want to check up on the employees we collectively hired. Continue reading

The Government Instinct for Secrecy Backfires Once Again

by Categorized: Education, Ethics, Government, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

Partway through the state Child Advocate’s devastating report on Hartford schools’ failure to protect students, there is a line – almost a throwaway line – illustrating how little respect some public employees have for the citizenry that employs them and pays them.

After school principal Eduardo Genao was caught sending creepy messages to underage girls, the school system quietly took steps not to fire him, but to slide him into a different six-figure job with less direct access to teenagers. Genao, who initially demanded no more than an oral reprimand, ultimately agreed to a vaguely worded written reprimand letter, and made one more request to settle the matter.

“Through his union representative, Mr. Genao requested that the district take an ‘aggressive approach’ to any Freedom of Information Act request regarding the matter,” the Child Advocate’s report states. “A district note accompanying the letter of reprimand included a written caution that the matter must be kept ‘very confidential.’ ”

By law, of course, the misdeeds of a public employee must be kept “not the least bit confidential.” But officials with something to hide have rarely felt any loyalty to the mandates of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, or the many decisions of the Freedom of Information Commission explaining again and again that, with limited exceptions, the public gets to know what’s going on in their government.

In 1993, the Connecticut Supreme Court wrote forceful language explaining that secrecy is not permitted when it comes to the misdeeds of those who draw a salary from the taxpayers. “When a person accepts public employment, he or she becomes a servant of and accountable to the public.  As a result, that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is diminished,” the high court wrote. “The public has a right to know not only who their employees are, but also when their public employees are and are not performing their duties.”

Case closed, right? And yet, year after year, the Freedom of Information Commission has to quote those words to remind bureaucrats who they work for, and order them to release records to the public.

Hartford school officials were not bound by Genao’s request almost a decade ago that they work aggressively to keep his past a secret. But last year, when my colleague Vanessa de la Torre sought the school system’s investigative records, the district’s initial response would surely have pleased Genao.

After two weeks with no reply, the school system’s labor relations specialist declared that “Pursuant to the review of the Office of the Corporation Counsel, there are no other documents response to your request that can be released.” Days later, the Corporation Counsel’s office provided a “privilege log,” declaring that every remaining document was exempt from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which limits the disclosure of students’ personally identifiable information.

The Courant pushed back. Though we’re not lawyers, we know the law, and told the city’s lawyers: “Portions of the document may well be exempt under FERPA, but our request covers the segregable, non-exempt portions, which it would be illegal for the district to withhold. Is the district refusing to release redacted versions of these records?” The city’s lawyers continued to insist that every word of every document was exempt from disclosure.

But we – as the saying goes these days – persisted. And ultimately the city’s lawyers acknowledged that the law was on our side, releasing records with the names and other identifiable information about students redacted, as we had asked for all along.

Had the instinct for secrecy not been so strong when the district was investigating Genao’s disturbing behavior in 2007 and 2008, a full airing of his behavior might have forced him out of his job. A 13-year-old girl might not have been traumatized by the sexually explicit texts he is accused of sending her just last year. Genao might not be facing criminal charges in that case. And the city of Hartford, as well as the school board, school superintendent and other officials, might not be defendants in what could be a costly lawsuit.

When will they ever learn?

How Much Did Your Vote Count in the Presidential Election?

by Categorized: Data, Government, Politics Date:

With this year’s divisive election leading to a divided result – with Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote and Donald Trump winning the presidency – calls are rising once again to scrap the electoral college system.

Some of this is Monday-morning griping; had the results been reversed, it would surely be Trump’s supporters suddenly aghast at the way we’ve elected presidents since the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804. But it is undeniable that the electoral college system is a departure from the traditional one-person-one-vote philosophy that typically guides democracies.

How big a departure? To quantify that, we measured the relative value of each state’s voters in this election by calculating how many votes for the winning candidate were required to procure each electoral college delegate.

Three factors affect the weight of a particular state’s voters:

Voters in small states have an advantage – because delegates are assigned based on the number of each state’s representatives and senators in Congress. Representatives are apportioned based on population, but every state has two senators regardless of  population. So, for a tiny state with a single representative, adding two more delegates triples the number of electoral college votes for that state – thereby tripling the potential power of its voters. But in a huge state such as California, with 53 representatives, the addition of two more delegates increases its electoral college power by only a few percent.

Voters in states with low turnout relative to population have an advantage – because the fewer votes cast, the more weight each individual vote carries. The electoral college delegates are assigned based on a state’s total population. So in states with low voter turnout – either because of below-average voter eligibility or below-average voter registration or simply because residents didn’t go to the polls – those who do cast ballots carry more weight than voters in high-turnout states.

Voters in states where the margin of victory was narrow have an advantage – because the victor in each state (with a couple exceptions), wins 100 percent of that state’s delegates whether that candidate swept 80 percent of vote or won with a tiny plurality. So the closer the race, the smaller the number of votes for the winner. And the smaller the number of votes, the more weight each vote carries.

Those factors can move in different directions and occasionally cancel each other out. In Texas, for example, the state’s large population weakened the value of each vote. But the state also had low voter turnout, increasing the value of each vote. The result: one vote for Trump in Texas carried almost exactly the same weight as the average of all winning votes across the country. And California, despite being the most-populous state and producing a larger than average margin of victory for Clinton – factors that pushed down the weight of each vote – had such low voter turnout that each individual vote for Clinton ended up carrying 22 percent more weight than the national average.

But while there is variability among the factors, a state’s small size is clearly the most significant in boosting a state’s relative power. The three states whose voters carried the most weight in the electoral college all have a single representative, but three delegates: Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont. Alaska also had a smaller than average margin of victory for Trump and a smaller than average voter turnout, making its voters the most heavily weighted in the election, with each vote for Trump counting for 2.8 times the electoral-college power of the average vote nationwide.

At the other end of the scale, Clinton voters in Massachusetts – with high voter turnout, a higher-than-average vote spread and a slightly above-average population – carried the least electoral-college weight, with each vote counting for about 70 percent of the average power of votes nationwide.

Put another way, in Alaska, one electoral college delegate was assigned for roughly every 43,500 votes for the winner, while in Massachusetts, it took about 178,600 winning votes to produce one delegate.

The map above shows the relative weight of votes for the winning candidate in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States shaded progressively greener had higher weights; states shaded progressively redder had lower weights. Click on a state to see its winner and the relative value of its votes for the winner. There’s a clear geographic split, with most Western states being over-weighted and most Eastern states under-weighted, with the exception of small New England states. That is primarily a reflection of most of the Great Plains states.

Connecticut State Budget, Fiscal 2017

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Government, Politics Date:

Legislators are preparing to vote on a nearly $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year – a revised spending plan that trims more than $800 million from what legislators approved 11 months ago. Here’s a breakdown of the proposed budget by department and by line-item description. Hovering over the bubbles will display each department’s total budget. Clicking on a department will show line-item spending for that agency.

Why Exactly Do We Keep Teacher Ratings Top Secret?

by Categorized: Data, Education, Government, Transparency/FOI Date:

The state Department of Education took extraordinary measures last week to prevent even the slightest risk that you might find out how qualified your kid’s teacher is.

If that sounds ridiculous, it’s not entirely the department’s fault. A three-decade-old state law exempts from disclosure all records of teacher performance and evaluation (because why would taxpayers care about the quality teacherof the teachers they employ?). So when the state submitted aggregate school-by-school data on teacher ratings as part of a court case last week, they suppressed more than half the data points to make sure there was no possible way anyone could link a particular rating to a particular teacher.

The data show the number of teachers who fell into each of four categories in a new and controversial assessment of the state’s teaching force. The department did release statewide figures, showing that about a third of teachers were rated as “exemplary” by their school districts, a little under two-thirds were deemed “proficient,” and fewer than 2 percent were labeled “developing” or “below standard.”

But when reporting the data at the school level, the state withheld at least some of that information for nearly 7 out of 10 schools. For just under half the state’s schools, all of the numbers were suppressed. And all in service of making sure no one outside of the school system knows which teachers are extraordinary and which are struggling.

The department used an exceptionally strict suppression strategy, hiding the numbers if a particular category had been assigned to between one and five teachers at a school. The thinking apparently was that if four teachers at a school were rated exemplary, and they all knew each other’s rating, then they would know that no other teacher at the school had received that rating. To keep that category’s number secret, they also blacked out the number for the next-highest category. And by the time they were done, most of the numbers had been suppressed.

There are, for example, 66 teachers statewide rated “below standard.” But what schools they’re assigned to is a mystery; not one of the schools with a below-standard teacher is identified in the data.

There is plenty of reason to question the validity of the rankings, as reported by my colleague, Kathy Megan. But this is the teacher-performance scheme the state has imposed on its teachers, and taken $13.5 million from its taxpayers to implement. Does the public have no interest in seeing what the ratings revealed?

As The Scoop has written before, the secrecy surrounding teacher performance dates to 1984, when the legislature was hoodwinked into shutting off access to evaluations of public school teachers, purportedly to thwart teacher-shopping by parents. The law, however, applied to every certified school official below the superintendent, and before long, was extended to professors throughout UConn and the state university system as well.

While the statute was initially seen as a way to keep written performance reviews secret, educational leaders are afraid that releasing even anonymous data will put them on the wrong side of the law. That’s what’s behind a Freedom of Information Commission case in which a New Milford Board of Education member was turned down when he asked for the breakdown of teacher ratings for his district. The local board of ed is wary of releasing the data without direction from the FOI Commission. The teachers union, meanwhile, has intervened to try to keep the numbers from seeing the light of day.

While the Commission’s eventual ruling may resolve the issue for other school boards, the New Milford numbers came out in the court exhibit submitted by the state. Here’s what the union was trying to keep secret: Of the 346 New Milford teachers evaluated under the new system, 72 percent were deemed proficient and 28 percent were deemed exemplary. Not a single one was rated developing or below standard.

Does that sound like the sort of information that should be kept out of the hands of the public by the force of law?

A year ago, The Scoop published “A Transparency’s Advocate’s Legislative Wish List,” with eight suggestions for improving the public’s access to government records. In the 2015 session, legislators resolved one of the issues, fixing a confusing statute covering what arrest information police agencies must release. The other seven options are still on the table, including addressing that 1984 law that exempts teachers from the same level of accountability to which every other public employee is held. This year’s short session will be dominated by the budget. But there’s no reason our lawmakers can’t multitask.

So, legislators: Anyone care to step up in favor of government transparency?

Secret Severance Deal For Public Officials? Not In My State.

by Categorized: Government, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

Elected officials in Newington were so eager to be rid of former Town Manager John Salomone that they offered him tens of thousands of dollars of other people’s money to get him to leave.

But they also didn’t want everyone in town to know the details of the whole messy affair, so they did JohnSalomonewhat politicians too often do: They added a confidentiality clause to the severance deal, and then said they were barred from releasing a copy of the signed agreement.

There are two things wrong with this approach. One, it’s generally bad public policy to keep people in the dark when you’re spending their money. And two, in Connecticut anyway, it’s illegal.

Or more particularly: Politicians in Connecticut can draft confidentiality clauses all they want; they just can’t keep them confidential.

That’s been the law of the land here for nearly a decade, but it’s a statute public officials sometimes have trouble remembering. So as a public service, The Scoop offers the following refresher: Connecticut General Statutes 1-214a – appropriately titled “Disclosure of public agency termination, suspension or separation agreement containing confidentiality provision” – specifically mandates just that: the disclosure of public employee separation agreements, notwithstanding a confidentiality clause. Under the law, any termination agreement between a public agency and and an employee “that contains a confidentiality provision that prohibits or restricts such public agency from disclosing the existence of the agreement or the cause or causes for such termination … shall be subject to public disclosure.”

So when the Courant’s Christopher Hoffman asked for a copy of the severance agreement earlier this month after the Newington Town Council approved it 8-0, he should have promptly received a copy. Instead, according to Hoffman’s story, Mayor Roy Zartarian “said that the town had negotiated a severance package with Salomone but declined to reveal its contents, saying both parties had agreed to keep it confidential.”

That’s not what the statutes allow. And to Zartarian’s partial credit, when advised of his obligations under the law, he did ultimately provide a copy of the agreement, while continuing – as he is at least legally entitled to do – to refuse to talk about the town’s actions.

So town residents are still partly in the dark about why their public servants doled out tens of thousands of dollars to the outgoing Town Manager, but at least they now know that’s where their money went. And through Hoffman’s diligence, they now know the extraordinary effort all parties took to assure that the whole messy affair would stay as much in the shadows as possible.

The signed deal, for example, assures that Salomone won’t share any thoughts he might have about whether the public is being ill-served by the town. The agreement bars Salomone from disparaging or criticizing the town and specifically prohibits him from saying anything to the press about his departure “other that what is agreed to by the town.”

Likewise, town officials agreed not to speak openly and honestly with anyone about their opinion of Salomone’s professional abilities or personality, and further barred every Newington town employee from saying anything negative or critical to a potential future employer of Salomone’s. That means, presumably, that no one had anything bad to say about Salomone to representatives of the city of Norwich, which just hired Salomone as their new city manager.

Under the separation deal, Newington officials agreed to give Salomone seven months’ pay while he isn’t working for the town. That’s a month longer than he’s entitled to under a provision in his contract that gives him six month’s salary if the town votes to terminate him. City officials won’t say why they gave him the extra month’s pay – about $12,000 of taxpayer’s money.

“This is a personnel matter and as such, I can make no statement on the issue,” Zartarian told the Courant. In fact, there is nothing in Connecticut law that bars public officials from making statements on personnel matters, and the only thing forcing Zartarian to keep mum is the agreement he chose to sign.

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For CT FOI’s Birthday: A (Mostly) Good-News Story

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act turns 40 years old today, and in honor of that milestone, let’s write about a transparency success story – the tale of an agency that received a request for public documents and actually produced the records with no delays, no phony FOI_Grassoroadblocks, and even no cost.

This is not a fictionalized fantasy; it really happened, and it involved the City of Hartford Corporation Counsel, which, under prior regimes, was not always so agreeable when it came to giving, to the public, records that belong to the public.

First, some background: On Nov. 14, 2012 a Hartford man named Lamonte Brown was walking with his dog Boomer on South Marshall Street when police officers investigating a noise complaint confronted him and, he says, beat him, shot him with Tasers, and impounded his dog, which was later euthanized.

Those events led to a lawsuit against the officers in federal court and then, in August, to a formal settlement – with Brown agreeing to drop the suit and city officials agreeing to write Brown a check for $7,500. The settlement was later reported by the Associated Press, in a story that included this curious line: “Brown’s lawyer, John Q. Gale, said he couldn’t discuss the case because of a confidentiality agreement.”

Such confidentiality agreements are common in lawsuit settlements. They are also controversial, with a continuing debate over whether the potential benefit of that secrecy (the ability to settle more cases without the fear of inviting more litigation) outweighs the potential harm (keeping the public in the dark about, say, especially dangerous doctors or dangerous products or serial rapists).

But when it comes to public agencies – at least in Connecticut – that debate is mostly muted. Our Freedom of Information Commission – an independent agency that is the jewel of the law turning 40 today – has consistently held that when government officials settle lawsuits, they can’t keep taxpayers in the dark about the terms of the settlement – unless there are special circumstances that compel a a judge to take the extraordinary step of ordering the settlement sealed.

Which brings us back to Lamonte Brown’s case. Continue reading

Yet Another Effort to Keep the Public in the Dark about the Public’s Business

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

It is extraordinarily well-settled law in Connecticut that personnel records related to the official conduct of our civil servants are public records that must – with rare and well-delineated exceptions – be released to members of the public, who employ those civil servants.

And yet, decades after the state Supreme Court resolved any serious question about the obligation oftopsecret public agencies, the dockets of the Freedom of Information Commission are routinely clogged with cases in which one town or another is trying – through ignorance or willful law-breaking – to keep personnel files secret.

Usually, the arguments are worn and tired, but occasionally an agency will come up with a novel, if misplaced, justification for skirting the law. That’s the case with a complaint brought against the Ansonia Police Department, which refuses to release personnel records for one of its officer. Continue reading

Secrecy-Obsessed Bureaucrats Battle for Coveted “Golden Padlock Award”

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When the Boston Globe sought records related to crashes involving Massachusetts State Police cars, the agency said it would be happy to comply – for a fee of $62,200. The agency was also willing to release a log of public-records requests – for $42,750. And the Staties told a reporter for the Bay State Examiner that he would have to pay a $710.50 “non-refundable research fee” just to find out how much the agency would ultimately charge for copies of internal-affairs documents.golden_padlock

For “habitually going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties,” the Massachusetts State Police was named one of four finalists for the Golden Padlock Award, a slightly tongue-in-cheek honor bestowed annually by the journalism organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

“It normally takes months or longer to respond to news media FOI requests. Requests for basic documents routinely produce refusals, large portions of blacked out documents or demands for tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified fees,” IRE gushed in announcing the department’s nomination. The news organization also quoted a 2013 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that declared: “The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender – verging on a career criminal – when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.”

This is the third year IRE has led the hunt for “the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.” Last year, the award was shared by the U.S. Navy FOI office, which not only stymied efforts by a reporter to obtain information on a shooting spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., but also accidentally sent the reporter an internal memo outlining the plan to keep records secret; and the governors of Oklahoma and Missouri, who went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about problems with prison executions.

Joining the Massachusetts State Police as finalists this year are the Colorado Judicial Branch, which keeps records of its spending and disciplinary actions under wraps; The Texas Department of Public Safety, which tried to block inquiries into the validity of its border-security program; and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has stonewalled efforts to learn more about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by an Army staff sergeant.

“There is a unique brand of courage displayed by public officials who deny, delay and circumvent the public’s right to know with a straight-faced sense of duty,” said Robert Cribb, a Toronto Star reporter and chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee. “They carry forward a rich tradition of undermining open records laws with ingenuity, commitment and condescension deserving of our acknowledgement.”

The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference this weekend.

Charity Fraud Charges: Four Down, Hundreds to Go

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Government, Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by Donateunscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5  million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.

And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading