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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bill would expand governing boards’ ability to meet in private sessions

As published in the Record Journal on Thursday March 28, 2013

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer

HARTFORD — Open government advocates Monday railed against a bill that would give state and municipal governing boards more ability to meet in secret to discuss important issues.

“One of the fundamental precepts of democracy is that the meetings of those the people elect to serve them in their government should be as open and public as possible,” James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said.

Smith questioned why lawmakers would consider a system that would allow elected officials to meet privately to discuss and conduct public business, and then emerge to a public meeting essentially just to vote. The proposal “flies in the face of well established law in what constitutes a meeting of a public agency,” Smith said.

The bill would change the definition of a public meeting under the state Freedom of Information law. It would enable board members to discuss public business behind closed doors even if they have a quorum — or more than half of the elected body present and more than one political party represented.

Under the proposal, those groups could meet to discuss public issues without notifying the public of the meeting, and could bar residents from attending the session. They’d just have to say the meeting was limited to “leaders.” It’s not uncommon for more than half of the members of a town council, for example, to have leadership titles.

Any board that under current law must give notice of a meeting — including boards of education and selectmen, town councils, planning and zoning commissions, and ethics boards — would be covered under the measure.

Mary E. Schwind, managing director and associate general counsel of the state Freedom of Information Commission, also criticized the proposal at the hearing Monday before the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. The measure was raised by the committee, so it’s unclear which lawmaker or lawmakers proposed the plan.

“In essence, the public would have the opportunity to view the rubber-stamping decisions already made,”Schwind told lawmakers.

She questioned why the law should change. “The law has worked well over all these years and public agencies have managed to conduct their business in public,” she said.

Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, said the top four lawmakers on legislative committees often meet behind closed doors in “screening meetings” to determine what bills can pass and what changes to make to bills before they reach the House or the Senate floors.

The privacy of those meetings is important to the process, he said.

Screening meetings are allowed under current law because they don’t involve a quorum of members.

But Smith said the measure would have far-reaching consequences in terms of the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing.

“What we oppose is legislation that would shut that process in yet another attempt to restrict the transparency laws,” he said.

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