Senator Frantz Addresses Concerns Over Independence of Watchdog Agencies [Stamford Advocate]

February 22, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Stamford Advocate on February 21, 2013

Angela Carella: Malloy needs to let the watchdogs be free

The last governor who tried to pull the teeth out of the state’s watchdog agencies was John G. Rowland.

You remember him. He was the one who reigned over “Corrupticut” until he got caught accepting gifts from people who did business with the state and landed at the Loretto Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.

Now Stamford’s own Dannel P. Malloy is moving on the watchdogs. They are the Freedom of Information Commission, the Elections Enforcement Commission and the Office of State Ethics — agencies that protect citizens’ right to know what government is up to, ensure fair and open elections, and guide state officials and employees in following the law.

The agencies are supposed to be independent and nonpartisan. They are supposed to be free of government influence so they can police government. Since they were formed in the 1970s, the agencies have reported to citizen councils that rule on reports of wrongdoing by government officials.

But Malloy wants to consolidate the agencies and place them under the supervision of someone he appoints.

He wants his appointee to be in charge of the agencies that investigate whether a government office is trying to keep public documents secret, whether a campaign donation is legal, whether a government official behaved unethically.

Under Malloy’s proposal, the citizen councils would remain, but their staffs would be under the control of his appointee. So the citizen councils would have no teeth.

More, Malloy wants to remove a protection the state Legislature put in place a decade ago, when Rowland tried to cut the watchdog agencies. Legislators passed a law saying that the agencies’ budgets must bypass the governor’s office and go straight to them. Lawmakers wanted to insulate the watchdogs from the governor.

Now Malloy, who is trying to cut costs to balance a difficult state budget, wants to remove the insulation.

It’s the second time he’s tried. In 2011, Malloy cut the agencies’ budgets by one-third, created an Office of Government Accountability and placed them under it. Then he named David Guay executive administrator of the office.

Guay is supposed to answer to the heads of the three watchdog agencies, plus six others, even though he oversees them. Because that is nonsensical, a turf war has erupted.

“I’ll report to whoever I need to report to,” Guay said last year after trying to bypass the authority of the agency heads. The Malloy administration seems OK with that.

Last week Ben Barnes, who is Malloy’s budget chief in Hartford as he was in Stamford when Malloy was mayor, told The CT Mirror, an online news agency, that the Malloy administration is seeking management control over the agencies not because of anything “insidious,” but because “somebody’s got to be able to discipline you and fire you” when “you don’t show up to work, when you do (expletive for `shoddy’) work, when you show up drunk.”

But shouldn’t it be the agency heads, not the governor’s appointee, who doles out the discipline? Because what if it’s Barnes or Malloy doing the shoddy work or showing up drunk? And even if the Malloy administration has no insidious intent in directly managing the watchdog agencies, it is setting the table for an insidious event in a future administration.

When Rowland tried to declaw the watchdog agencies 10 years ago, the Legislature stopped him. Will the Legislature do that again?

State Rep. William Tong, who represents the 147th District and is running for mayor of Stamford this year, said lawmakers are concerned about the proposal, but it’s too soon to tell what will happen.

Watchdog agencies “are critical and should be safeguarded,” said Tong, who, like Malloy, is a Democrat. “I’m sure this is not motivated by a desire to impair independence. It’s motivated by historic budget challenges.”

Lawmakers are “hearing from all state agencies about the deep cuts” necessitated by the effects of the recession, Tong said. “It’s tough right now,” he said.

Fellow Democrat and state Rep. Daniel Fox, of Stamford, who represents the 148th District, said the proposal “is still in the review period” and raising interest.

“We need to reduce the size of government, but the manner by which we do it has to be closely watched so there aren’t unintended consequences to open government,” Fox said.

Republicans were more blunt.

“Putting this under a director who reports to the governor is a conflict of interest. I would not support it at all,” said state Rep. Michael Molgano, of Stamford, R-144. “We are trying to keep spending down, but we still have to do the right thing. This would give voters the wrong impression.”

State Sen. Scott Franz, of Greenwich, R-36, who represents a portion of Stamford, said it is “one of the most dangerous proposals to come out of the governor’s office since he took over two years ago.”

By further consolidating the agencies and placing them under a Malloy appointee, the administration hopes to save $187,000, Franz said. It isn’t worth it, he said.

“What is the value of the independence of these agencies? They watch government contracts, they prevent corruption. They are priceless,” Franz said. “My guess is that Republicans will be very much against this and half the Democrats will as well. Watchdogs are a fundamental element of good government.”

Requests for comment were left with the rest of the Stamford delegation, three Democrats and one Republican, but were not returned. They are state Sen. Carlo Leone, of Stamford, D-27; state Rep. Gerald Fox III, of Stamford, D-146; state Rep. Patricia Miller, of Stamford, D-145, and state Rep. Livvy Floren of Greenwich, R-149, who represents part of Stamford.

Over the years Connecticut has created some of the strongest “good government” laws in the nation. On this issue Malloy should not follow in the footsteps of Rowland. He should look at another governor, Ella Grasso, who served in Congress during the Watergate scandal and witnessed what happens when government is allowed to operate in secret.

When she ran for governor in 1974, Grasso vowed that, if elected, she would work to enact a Freedom of Information Act. It passed in 1975.

The preamble reads, in part, “The legislature finds … that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy … that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know.”