The University of Connecticut Foundation is back in the news and back at the Capitol for the perennial tug-of-war over opening the foundation’s books. In the last two legislative sessions,
lawmakers have introduced bills that would subject the fundraising arm of the university to the Freedom of Information Act and allow the Auditors of Public Accounts to review the foundation’s finances.
Those bills went nowhere. But this year, a dramatically watered-down version of the legislation has been introduced that would require the foundation to release a laundry list of documents – most of which are already public by state or federal law. Perhaps the most significant change involves the disclosure of how many disbursements the foundation makes for various categories of support, including scholarships and endowed professorships and program support – although the university already reports the total amount spent on those categories.
A second bill, for which a public hearing is scheduled tomorrow, March 18th, would require the foundation to release information on its financial support for faculty and staff (though the bill’s wording leaves it unclear whether that would require more disclosure than the university already makes). And the legislation would make public the names of people and companies donating to the foundation – unless the donor requests secrecy. If that bill passes, it will be particularly interesting to see how the foundation implements that provision.
Click here or the chart below to download our full Charity Check report on the University of Connecticut Foundation (which will open as a Word document). And click the image at bottom to download the foundation’s most recent tax return.
The hipster coders at the U.S. Census Bureau – yes, they exist – are embracing March Madness once again this year by reviving a bracket game to test your population knowledge. Is Tennessee bigger than Iowa? What about North Dakota vs. New Hampshire? Florida or New York?
In six rounds, players earn a point for each correct answer. And each new game scrambles the state pairs for a new challenge. For the extra-competitive, there’s also a bracket game for the 64 largest metro areas in the country.
Retail gas prices in the region have been cut in half since 2011, but a degree of pain persists for one class of drivers: those with high-end cars that require high-octane fuel.
If you luxury-car drivers feel like you’ve been paying an extra premium for premium fuel lately, you’re right. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that the price gap between regular unleaded and super unleaded has soared in the past year – the result, experts say, of tight competition for regular gas and costlier processing for the high-end stuff.
For most of the last decade, as the chart below shows, premium fuel was 7 or 8 percent more expensive than regular. But the gap began rising sharply in mid-2014. After a dip in early 2015, the gap skyrocketed, rising from a 12-percent surcharge last June to nearly 31 percent on Monday.
That translates to an extra 55 cents a gallon for premium unleaded today, more than twice the extra cost for most of the decade, even when fuel prices were far higher. And at some stations, the surcharge is far higher. At one West Hartford Shell station, premium users this week were paying an extra 90 cents a gallon – a 47-percent bump – for super unleaded. That’s an extra $25 every time a Lincoln Navigator owner fills up.
Why the big gap? Part of the explanation is the hyper-competitive market for regular gas, which makes up the vast majority of a typical service station’s sales. That’s the price most prominently featured on the giant lighted signs at gas stations, and it generates the thinnest profit margins as stations compete for price-conscious consumers. But drivers of pricier cars with more demanding engines tend to be less price-conscious and make for welcome targets as gas station owners look to make up for thin margins on regular gas.
“Stations find competitive benefits in dropping regular prices as a way to attract customers,” AAA reported in response to questions about gas prices. “The reality is that many premium customers will continue to shop at the same station regardless as to whether the price is dropping as fast as regular.”
At the same time, even with the hefty surcharge, some regular-unleaded users are splurging, since even the inflated prices for high-octane gas are far lower than the prices charged for regular gas just months ago. The current average price for premium gas in New England – about $2.32 a gallon – is 45 cents a gallon cheaper than customers were paying for regular gas last June. As regular-gas users treat themselves to high-test, that changes the supply/demand equation.
And some experts also say that boosting the octane of the raw fuel delivered to stations has become more expensive, particularly as the formulation of North American shale oil – the fuel currently in abundant supply – is better suited to regular unleaded than super. “As a result,” according to AAA, “supplies of regular gasoline have remained more plentiful than premium.” And that, too, changes the supply/demand equation.
But there may be relief on the way. AAA reports that historically, the price gap between regular and premium gas is at its highest in the winter. “In the summer,” the association reports, “the spread between regular and premium is at its closest.”
And summer is a mere 111 days away.
For years, it has been the policy of the state Department of Education to give school superintendents an advance peek at their district’s standardized test scores, a week or so before the high-stakes numbers are released to the public. And for roughly as long, transparency advocates have groused that such a policy seemed to put the public-relations concerns of insiders above the rights of the public to have prompt access to the government records they own.
But it took an enterprising reporter from the Journal Inquirer of Manchester to actually do something about it.
Last Aug. 19, a deputy commissioner at the education department sent an email to every superintendent in the state, announcing that aggregate district-wide data for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test would be made available to them later that day, but that the data was not to be shared with the press or discussed at a board of education meeting.
“As a courtesy, the embargoed results are made available for districts before results are made public,” the email stated. And breaking that embargo, the email warned, “jeopardizes your district’s access to future embargoed releases.”
Michael Savino, the J-I’s Capitol reporter, caught wind of the Aug. 19 email and immediately requested a copy of the district-by-district data the Department of Education had distributed to districts. The department declined, explaining that the data would be released to the public only after a “final quality control check” was completed.
“We set a high bar regarding accuracy of information that we generate and the public should expect nothing less from us,” a department official wrote in rejecting the request.
Nine days later, the data that had been released to the superintendents was released to the public. And two months after that, the press and the state squared off before a hearing officer with the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether that nine-day delay was legal.
The department argued that an advance copy of the test data – including student-by-student results – is sent to local school districts so superintendents can notify the department of any anomalies that might indicate errors. The department’s chief performance officer testified that the participation of superintendents is an important part of the department’s verification process.
“In essence,” wrote Attorney Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer, “the [department officials] argued that the record containing the aggregate district-wide test results was a ‘preliminary draft’ at the time it was requested because such results had not been verified by the superintendents and the department.”
But Ross wasn’t buying it.
“The Commission does not credit the testimony of the [chief performance officer] regarding the superintendents’ role in verifying the test scores, in light of the conflicting evidence that the aggregate district-wide test results were sent to the superintendents ‘as a courtesy’,” Ross wrote in a proposed decision released last week. Moreover, she said, there was no evidence that the department had asked superintendents to verify the data and report any problems, and no evidence that any superintendents had in fact provided feedback on the results.
Beyond that challenge to the department’s testimony, Ross wrote that the data did not meet the legal definition of a preliminary draft, and that the department violated the Freedom of Information Act when it delayed releasing the data to Savino.
After Ross’s proposed decision was released, an education department spokeswoman told the Journal Inquirer: “We are strong proponents of transparency, but we are also bound by our duty to ensure the information we present to the public is accurate.”
If the full Freedom of Information Commission adopts Ross’s findings at its Feb. 24 meeting, the department will know which of those two interests is paramount.
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 of 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?
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 what 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.
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 roadblocks, 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