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UPDATE: Attempt to undermine FOI Act blocked

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: theday.com

Published 06/12/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 06/12/2012 01:41 PM

Under pressure from news media outlets, the Malloy administration has agreed to pull from today's special session legislation that would have seriously eroded Freedom of Information protections. You can read the updated information here.

While the issue may came up in the next legislative session, at least that will provide time for debate and discussion. Catching and stopping this legislation before it could sneak through the legislature is a victory for open government.

My earlier blog entry follows:

If a business is going to accept taxpayer money or receive other benefits from the state as an incentive to locate or expand in Connecticut, it is reasonable they should expect some scrutiny — isn't it? The public should have the right to know on what business assumptions the assistance is based, what qualifications the company had to meet, and how the state's investment will be monitored. After all, it is the public's money.

Yet a change to the Freedom of Information Act could be rushed through during today's special legislative session that prevents access to such basic information.

State officials could use this new exception to the open-government law to block most information about such public-private partnerships. This exception to the state's FOI Act would impinge on the public's ability to assess government decision making when it comes to investment in the private sector, to the point of potentially covering up favoritism and corruption.

And this significant exception to the FOI Act has been slipped on to today's agenda for the special session, meaning it is not being subjected to the usual hearing process during which the merits of legislation can be discussed, challenged and amended.

The proposed exemption to the FOI Act reads:

"All records obtained by a state agency or a quasi-public agency related to a request for assistance from a business organization seeking to expand or relocate to this state, provided the disclosure of such record could adversely affect the financial interest of the state, the business or organization."

"Could" is a great wiggle word for lawyers. Arguably some information passing between the state and a company is proprietary and needs to be withheld, at least for a time. But if such an exception is needed, it should only protect the disclosure of records that "will" adversely affect the financial interest of the state, the business or the organization. This puts the burden of proof on the business and state. Using "could" as the standard makes it far too easy to keep information under wraps.

And certainly this exemption to public disclosure requirements should be temporary in nature. Once a deal is done or rejected all, or least most, information should come out.

Of course a normal legislative process would allow for such a discussion. The rush of a special session is not the time to push through a huge loophole to the FOI Act.

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