Category Archives: Politics

Governor Asks Connecticut: “What’s On Your Mind?” Answer: “Guns.”

by Categorized: Finance, Government, Politics, Public Safety Date:

Last fall, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy invited the public to chime in on state regulations that are “outdated, unnecessarily burdensome, insufficient or ineffective.” More than 2,000 comments came in to a special website.

And what was on people’s minds?

Guns. Specifically, handguns in state parks and forests.

Continue reading

Government Officials And The Urge To Tell Reporters To “Pound Sand”

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

A few years ago, a Courant reporter emailed a routine Freedom-of-Information Act request to a certain large central-Connecticut municipality, and the reply that ended up back in her Inbox included – most definitely unintentionally – the entire string of emails that was created as the request bounced around various city departments.

The gem of that email string was a brief question posed by the city’s attorney, who asked one of his deputies: “Helen, take a look at this FOIA request. Any feelings re our capacity to tell [the reporter] to go pound sand?”

We got the records – this attorney was famously ill-informed on FOI matters and “Helen” was kind enough to explain the law to him – and we chalked this up as a one-in-a-million goof. But it turns out it’s not entirely uncommon for public employees to inadvertently reveal their plans to disregard transparency laws.

The latest case involves Washington, D.C., television reporter Scott MacFarlane, who asked the federal government for a variety of records related to last September’s attack at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 dead. Instead of the records, the FOI officer last week sent him an email – intended for another Navy official – with a surprisingly detailed strategy for minimizing the amount of information the government would have to release to the public.

The email laid out a few scenarios for asserting that it would be impossible to fulfill MacFarlane’s request for photographs and memos, with ideas for turning MacFarlane down altogether or persuading him to narrow the scope of the records he wanted.The FOI officer discounted much of the request as a “fishing expedition,” but regarding a request for emails sent on the day of the shooting, she wrote: “this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny.”NavyTweets

MacFarlane promptly posted an image of the email – along with the Tweet: “EPIC FAILURE- U.S. Navy accidentally sends reporter its strategy memo for dodging his FOIA request.” In addition to 1,800 re-Tweets, that prompted an apology from the Navy, which also took to Twitter to insist the agency is thoroughly committed to transparency and the “vital role” of the Freedom of Information Act – the actions of its Freedom of Information officer notwithstanding.

The Navy episode got reporters on a Freedom of Information list-serv talking about similar email snafus. When a Florida reporter asked the IRS for information related to a problem with direct deposit of tax refunds, a tax official accidentally wrote back: “The reporter also wanted to know how many taxpayers are affected by this situation. I’m trying to avoid answering the question but I’ll bet someone knows the answer.”

A reporter in Washington state once emailed questions to the county sheriff, with a cc to the press officer. The sheriff hit “Reply All” and, thinking she was writing to her aide, simply asked “Who is this jerk?”

Government officials often find it more convenient to operate in secret. But that’s not how things are supposed to work in a Democracy. Have your own FOI horror story? Or having trouble accessing public records that you, after all, own? Let us know. Our contact form is always available.

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

More Frustration at Privacy/Transparency Task Force

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

The old adage that watching laws being made is like watching sausage being made was on display Wednesday during a 2½-hour meeting of the state’s Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know, at which frustrated members found themselves struggling with parliamentary bureaucracy and entrenched disagreements.

Half-way through the meeting, after a lengthy and complicated series of motions and amendments, Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap tried to suggest a way to move toward a vote on a proposal by state Victims Advocate Garvin Ambrose.

“Once we dispose of the Storey amendment, then Ms. Mozdzer-Gil’s amendment is entirely in order, because it’s an amendment to your original motion, as amended to conform with Sen. Fasano’s proposal,” he said.

But by then, Ambrose had given up.

“I have a solution,” he said. “I’m going to take the entire issue off the table and just withdraw my motion completely so we can start fresh, because this is getting beyond ridiculous at this point.”

But it wasn’t quite so easy. Instead, the panel spent another two minutes discussing whether Ambrose could in fact unilaterally withdraw his motion or whether the full task force had to vote on whether or not the full task force could stop considering the issue.

The task force, which will make recommendations to the legislature, was created during the last legislative session, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and fears that records related to victims and witnesses would be released publicly. The same legislation that created the task force also temporarily amended the state’s Freedom of Information Act to exclude from mandatory disclosure “the identity of minor witnesses” in records created by police during criminal investigations.

State Sen. Leonard Fasano, a member of the task force, said at an earlier meeting that that language was added at the request of Bridgeport lawmakers in response to the 1999 murder of Leroy “B.J.” Brown, an 8-year-old city boy who witnessed a shooting and was killed before he could testify.

The boy’s name came out as part of the criminal trial, not as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the recent change in the law would have no impact on a similar scenario. But it has become something of a line in the sand between privacy advocates and transparency advocates on the task force.

Transparency advocates say existing law already allows police to withhold the names of witnesses of any age who might face intimidation or threats. Privacy advocates say minor witnesses and accusers deserve special protection and a presumption that their identities should be confidential, just as juvenile defendants are afforded special protections. During Wednesday’s meeting, those points were made over and over.

As the gathering neared the one hour and 45 minute mark, co-chairman Don DeCesare’s patience was wearing thin, as illustrated in the video below, from CT-N. DeCesare said the group was “bunkered in” and seemingly unable to move forward.

Forty-five minutes later, after a discussion of whether or not they had to take a vote on whether to take a vote, the deeply divided panel did in fact call the roll on a proposal to restrict access to the identify of witnesses under age 13 – but to make that information releasable once the witnesses turn 18.

The vote: Seven in favor. Seven opposed.

At Typically Genial FOI/Privacy Task Force, a Rare Burst of Frustration

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Technology, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The 17-member Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is typically a cordial bunch, despite having strong voices at polar opposites on the issues. Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, for example, evaluates victim privacy and media rights through a completely different lens than, say, James H. Smith, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. And Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey sits right next to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, leading to frequent side-by-side disagreements, but also to occasional friendly banter.

But despite the normally civil tone, the task force, created in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, “can be a pressure cooker,” Smith said. And that below-the-surface tension made a rare and dramatic appearance during a marathon hearing Wednesday, when a frustrated DebraLee Hovey, a task force member and state representative from Newtown, laid into a transparency advocate who suggested that civil laws might already address the sort of harmful behavior members of the committee were looking to curtail.

Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told task force members that relatives of the Newtown victims had seemed to indicate through their attorney that they were primarily concerned about graphic details of the crime being misused by those on the fringe who were intent on causing pain to the families. She said those actions could run afoul of laws already on the books that punish the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Hovey, who assailed Cavanagh’s perspective – and lawyers in general. You can view the exchange below, and watch the entire hearing on CT-N.com, the website of the Connecticut Network.

The task force was established by the legislature to “consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” Those recommendations are due Jan. 1.

In Newtown Anniversary Gun Battle, A Provocateur Blinks

by Categorized: Politics, Public Safety Date:

Political provocateur Larry Ward made a huge splash last January with “Gun Appreciation Day,” a campaign that prompted rallies from coast to coast intended to counter legislative efforts to tighten gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a month earlier.

The boisterous rallies highlighted the deep cultural rift over firearms in America, with millions of citizens believing the Sandy Hook shooting tragically illustrated the danger of guns and millions more believing the shooting tragically illustrated the danger of gun control.

That cultural divide, which the Courant covered extensively in print and in collaboration with the PBS documentary series Frontline, is back on display as the anniversary of the Newtown massacre approaches. Larry Ward and a coalition of pro-gun groups are back, too. But this time, their instinct for the dramatic may have gotten the better of them.

Ward’s Washington public relations firm, Political Media, Inc., last week began promoting “Guns Save Lives Day,” which was slated for Dec. 14 – one year after Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 26.

“Guns Save Lives Day is on December 14, 2013, the Anniversary of Newtown,” a web site set up by Ward proclaimed. “We plan to honor these victims by doing everything within our power to prevent misguided gun control laws from leaving Americans defenseless or worse victims. Don’t be a victim, ARM YOURSELF.”

Groups on both sides of thGSLD3e gun-control battle have accused their opponents of politicizing the Sandy Hook shooting, and the plan for “events and activities in all 50 states” during Guns Save Lives Day prompted significant backlash, particularly within NewtGSLDown. “For this group to use our Sandy Hook tragedy as a springboard for political action is disrespectful to our community of Newtown and is of particularly insensitive timing,” Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra said. “I respect their right to promote their beliefs regarding guns. I ask that they respect our community and not use us for their purposes.”

That sort of reaction apparently had the desired effect. Organizers of Guns Save Lives Day have now pushed the day off Dec. 14, and the web site was reworked to read: “Guns Save Lives Day is on December 15, 2013, Bill of Rights Day, the day after the Anniversary of Newtown.”

But for organizers, the message of the day remains the same.

“Americans are concerned about attempts to erode their gun ownership rights, and for good reason,” said Alan Gottlieb, president of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which are both co-sponsors of the day. “Our mission with Guns Save Lives Day is to assure them our groups are working day and night to thwart government gun-grabbers at every opportunity. We are going to show America that there is a good side to guns.”

310 Million Americans. Three Dozen Fun Facts.

by Categorized: Census, Data, Education, Employment, Politics Date:

Housing values are down. Household sizes are up. Marriages are down. Unemployment is up. Manufacturing is down. College degrees are up.

Annual estimates from the Census Bureau in hundreds of categories became publicly releasable early this morning, and my colleague Mara Lee has a story looking at how Connecticut is getting older – but not appreciably faster than the nation as a whole, suggesting concerns about an aging workforce may be unduly alarmist.

Beyond those big-picture tales hiding in the numbers, however, there are scores of interesting data points capturing the gradual shifts and natural waves of a fluid society. Below are three dozen selected Census figures for the United States and Connecticut, showing the 2012 figures just released and figures for the same categories in 2008, along with the percent change for both the national and state figures.

The numbers, drawn from the American Community Survey, an annual sampling of the nation’s 310 million residents, paint a numerical tapestry of the country through questions on labor, housing, income, ancestry, education and even what portion of the labor force walks to work. (2.8 percent nationwide; 3 percent in Connecticut).

To dig into countless gigabytes of other Census Bureau data, log on to American Factfinder, the bureau’s online search tool.

Protesting a Six-Cent-a-Day Tax Hike

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Politics Date:

If your elected officials had some harebrained scheme that was going to jack up your cost of living to the tune of 6 cents a day, is that the sort of thing that would get your blood boiling and have you demanding a special legislative session?

It apparently would for thousands of Connecticut residents who have signed petitions targeting an upcoming boost in the state’s gasoline tax.  Nutmeggers pay humongous gas taxes and this may be more a reflection of frustration with tax creep than a real pocketbook issue (or maybe it’s just rank political posturing). But either way, let’s hit the calculator for a little reality check.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average American logs 12,888 miles a year. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average passenger car on the road gets 23.0 miles per gallon. That mpg figure seems a little high to me but they’re the experts, so using their numbers, the average motorist in a car is buying about 560 gallons of gas a year.

With the gas tax in Connecticut slated to rise 4 cents a gallon next week, that means our average motorist can look forward to dropping an extra $22.41 a year at the pump. That’s a daily drag on our personal economies of a little over 6 cents, or roughly the cost of – actually, nothing costs 6 cents.

That, of course, is only the average and, as they say, your mileage may vary. Drivers of pickup trucks and large SUV’s could be shelling out closer to 8 cents a day, and a Ferrari owner who lives 50 miles from work might have to come up with as much as 20 cents a day.

That’s probably not enough to sink the state into a double-dip recession (and the extra cost could be wiped out by driving just 1 mph slower on the highway). But for some, it may be more the principal of trying to get government to live within its means rather than going to the well for a few million here and a few million there.

Still, it’s worth remembering that if the legislature does go into special session, that too will have taxpayers reaching for their wallets. According to a 2010 analysis by the Office of Legislative Research, it costs $11,000 a day to operate a special session. And if the session is called with less than 10 days’ notice, that’s on top of at least $9,600 the state will spend to dispatch marshals or troopers to notify legislators of the session – a task which, for the record, The Scoop is willing to do for free.

In the Newtown Clerk’s Office, a Dishonorable End to Six Months of Lawlessness

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?

Would you openly defy the law?

Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?

Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?

Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.

This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.

As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]

That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading

From 42 Years Ago, A Supreme Court Justice’s Take on Secrecy, Leaks and National Security

by Categorized: First Amendment, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As the media swirls with stories of government eavesdropping and CIA leaks and national security worries, it’s instructive to recall this is hardly the first time the nation has sought to balance the public’s right to know against their government’s desire for secrecy.

In 1971, a divided U.S. Supreme Court decided the “Pentagon Papers” case, ruling that the government could not prevent newspapers from publishing stolen and leaked classified documents that revealed a pattern of official deception during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, there were concerns over the independence of the press, the trustworthiness of the Executive branch and the duty to preserve national security.

All nine justices penned individual opinions. Hugo Black, the court’s strongest First Amendment advocate, offered up a passionate defense of baring the government’s secrets, as a means of providing what he saw as true security for the nation’s bedrock values. Below are excerpts from his concurring opinion in that landmark case.

 

“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

“The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.”