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Mixed-up merger calls for repair

Published November 27. 2012 4:00AM

Sometimes well-intentioned ideas can turn out poorly, particularly when implementation of the idea involves complex and contradictory compromises between governors and state legislatures. Such is the case with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's attempt to reduce overhead costs by consolidating nine agencies - responsible to varying degrees for advocating for the public and keeping government officials honest - into a single Office of Governmental Accountability.

While the agencies still function independently, the consolidation has allowed savings by merging human resources, payroll, administration and information technology support services. Reducing such redundancies makes sense. Recognizing these savings, the legislature approved an $8.6 million budget for the new, consolidated office, down from the $10.7 million allocated in total for all nine agency budgets in 2010-11

But having an administrator heading this new office who is appointed by and answerable to the governor raised concerns. The Office of Governmental Accountability includes the state's most important policy watchdogs - the Office of State Ethics, the Elections Enforcement Commission and the Freedom of Information Commission. Since administrations can run afoul of the rules of these agencies, and can be subject to investigations and orders by them, some feared - including this newspaper - that having the governor's guy in charge would present an inherent conflict.

These watchdog agencies must be fiercely independent, concerned with only serving the public.

To allay the fears, while still achieving the improvements in efficiency, the legislature came up with a rather byzantine solution. It created a Governmental Accountability Commission, with representatives from each of the agencies - which are, in addition to the three watchdogs, the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners; Judicial Review Council; Judicial Selection Commission; Office of the Child Advocate; Office of the Victim Advocate; and the Contracting Standards Board.

The governor hires the administrator to run the Office of Governmental Accountability, but he or she must come from a list of persons recommended by the commission. And, interestingly, the commission can fire the administrator. And that's about as detailed as the law gets.

So when the commission recently issued an evaluation, which was critical of him on issues of communication and failing to visit the agency offices, Executive Administrator David Guay - the first person to ever hold the position - refused to acknowledge it or attend meetings to discuss it. The law, he said, gave the commission no authority to evaluate, or set standards, or tell him how to do his job. The law, Mr. Guay noted, only involved the commission in his hiring and firing.

Mr. Guay's argument appears to be a stretch. If the legislature gave the commission the power to fire the administrator that implies it also has the lesser authority to evaluate and set expectations. Without setting some standards and evaluating the administrator against them, how could the commission justify firing for poor performance? Mr. Guay's interpretation would suggest a firing could take place only for malfeasance.

But whoever is right, the legislature needs to repair things. Placing Mr. Guay in a position of having to answer to a commission representing agencies below him on the organizational chart does not make much sense. To maximize savings, Mr. Guay has said he needs more authority to change staffing and job functions.

Yet the danger of diminishing the vital autonomy of the watchdog agencies is serious and giving a gubernatorial appointee too much power over them would be dangerous.

It may be time for a new approach. Take the position out of the executive branch. Have the governor, legislature and judiciary make equal appointments to the Governmental Accountability Commission. Give the commission the power to hire, fire and evaluate the administrator and to recommend a budget to fund the agencies.

It's broke, so fix it.

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