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Malloy should insist staff use ct.gov

Published November 20. 2013 4:00AM

Once again, the administration of Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy finds itself on the wrong side of the ideal that because government officials serve the people the information they generate should be accessible to the public.

The latest example concerns emails. State guidelines, provided to state officials by the Office of Public Records Administrator, are clear. "Electronic messages sent or received in the conduct of public business are public records. Therefore, public officials should not use private email accounts to conduct public business."

Public business would include discussing public policy, legislative goals and responses to lobbyists seeking to influence those policies and goals.

However, as former Republican legislator Kevin Rennie noted in a recent column in The Hartford Courant, members of the Malloy administration have at times ignored this rule, using such private email accounts as Yahoo or Gmail to communicate about government business, rather than their ct.gov email accounts. Officials who communicated in this manner include the director of the Office of Policy and Management Benjamin Barnes, former top advisor Roy Occhiogrosso, Chief of Staff Mark Ojakian and Director of Communications Andrew Doba.

Under Connecticut's Freedom of Information law, these communications should still be available to the public, but accessing them can be problematic. Access depends on the good intentions of the various officials to retain their emails and provide them when an FOI request is received.

"Staff in the governor's office are trained on record retention and are aware that FOIA laws apply to documents and correspondence relating to official business, regardless of what email system is used," Mr. Doba told us. "The governor's staff takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act seriously."

The potential for abuse is obvious - utilizing private emails for communications that the administration would just as soon keep in house, knowing they will be more difficult to access.

Mr. Doba dismisses that notion. He said the vast majority of his own emails utilize ct.gov, about 150,000 now stored.

To eliminate suspicions that members of his administration are trying to operate in the shadows, the governor should direct his staff to always utilize the public system - ct.gov - for communications on government matters. This would make it far easier for the administration to respond to FOI requests for emails on particular topics or between specific government officials. The Department of Administrative Services retains and guards state electronic communications.

The question is: Does the governor want to make it easier for the press, public and critics to get all such information?

So far, Gov. Malloy's actions have not lined up with his pledge when running for office in 2010 to make transparency in government a keystone of his administration.

In a move directed by his office, the legislature reined in the independence of the FOI Commission by incorporating it into the new Office of Governmental Accountability. Granted, the primary focus was to cut costs by eliminating staff redundancy among the various watchdog agencies. Last session, however, Gov. Malloy sought greater direct control over these agencies, including the FOI Commission, a move the legislature rightly rejected.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, and without a hearing process, Gov. Malloy signed into law bills restricting access to photos, videos and 911 tapes at homicide scenes - a secretive approach that invites suspicion and conspiracy theories.

The governor had a chance to demonstrate his commitment to transparency when Comptroller Kevin Lembo proposed a bill that would require creation of a searchable, online database for reviewing the details of tax breaks, loans and grants given to businesses to generate economic development. Instead, his administration sought to weaken it and nothing passed.

Gov. Malloy needs to demonstrate through actions, not just words, that he supports open government.

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