Friday, May 17, 2013

Connecticut Politicians Try To Get Around Freedom of Information Act, with Secret Meetings


This year in the Connecticut General Assembly, a still anonymous CT law maker submitted a piece of legislation that would enable certain law makers to meet in private to discuss public affairs, without notifying the public, keep no notes, and even bar the public from attending.  No individual representative sponsored this bill, nor did any representative speak in favor of it, at the March 25th Government Administration & Elections Committee public hearing (video link). (Testimony on the bill begins at 3 hours and 56 minutes into the hearing.)

The actual bill, Senate Bill 1148, titled "An Act Redefining "Meeting" For Purposes of the Freedom of Information Act", changes the definition of "meeting", in regards to the Freedom of Information Act.

The stated purpose of the bill is to "exempt certain negotiations between the leaders of political parties from being considered a meeting for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act."

The bill immediately received opposition from groups in Connecticut, that advocate on the behalf of transparency in government.  James Smith, President of the CT Council on Freedom of Information, testified in opposition to this bill, saying it "flies in the face of well established law on what constitutes a meeting of a public agency", and it is "fundamentally contrary to the precepts of the government transparency laws."

Colleen M. Murphy, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Freedom of Information Commission, also testified in opposition to Senate Bill 1148, saying "If passed, this bill would be a huge blow to open government in Connecticut".

Despite the negative testimonies, the bill was voted on, and passed through the committee with a 10-4 vote.

Now, according to writer Angel Carella, of the Stamford Advocate, who has been following SB 1148, the bill has mysteriously died, after several media inquiries concerning the legislation were made to lawmakers in Hartford.  Carella made several phone calls, to different legislators, to find out more information on the bill, including who sponsored the bill, but did not receive any useful response.

Carella did eventually get a response from Senator Anthony Musto, who said Senate leaders decided not to go forward with the bill.

Senator Musto cited testimony against the bill by James Smith, and Colleen Murphy, as part of the reason for not going through with the legislation, however Musto, and nine other legislators, heard the testimony against the bill, before voting, and still voted in favor of it.

Interesting to note, in what town officials called a rare instance of involving themselves in the discussion of state legislation, the Wallingford Town Council passed a resolution opposing Senate Bill 1148.  The resolution was sent to the state legislature. It states that the bill “has the potential to make local government less accountable to the citizens.”  State Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky of Wallingford said that politicians in Wallingford might not have to worry about the proposed bill, because according to a reliable source in the legislature, Mushinsky said, the bill is close to dead.

This issue should still cause worry, due to the fact that there are legislatures who thought this would be a good idea, currently serving in the legislature, who decided to remain anonymous, when sponsoring this bill.  

Here is a list of the Representatives/Senators that voted in favor of the bill:
  • Senator Anthony Musto*, Democrat representing Bridgeport, Monroe & Trumbull
  • Senator Edward Meyer*, Democrat representing Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison & North Branford
  • Representative Ed Jutila*, Democrat representing East Lyme & Salem
  • Representative Mathew Lesser, Democrat representing Middletown
  • Representative Theresa Conroy, Democrat representing Derby, Seymour, & Beacon Falls
  • Representative Mike D'Agostino*, Democrat representing Hamden
  • Representative Roland Lemar, Democrat representing New Haven & East Haven
  • Representative Patricia Billie Miller, Democrat representing Stamford
  • Representative Mike Molgano, Republican representing Stamford
  • Representative Brian Sear, Democrat representing Hampton, Chaplin, Scotland, Canterbury, Franklin and Sprague, and parts of Lebanon, Lisbon and Norwich.
The names with a '*' next to it, indicate those legislators that are also LAWYERS.



Lawyers

I wrote an article last month, that I believe relates to this issue, titled, "Potential Conflict of Interest: 33% of Connecticut State Senators are Lawyers", which discusses the negative effect of having lawyers, being legislators, and making laws.  Lawyers learn to master the use of WORDS to get around, and get away with, corrupt, or immoral, activities.  For example, former President Bill Clinton, a lawyer, famously defended his lie about having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, by saying it all depends on what the definition of the word 'is', is.


Clinton rationalized, to the grand jury, why he wasn't lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, "there's nothing going on between us."  Here is how he defended this lie:

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."
What?

Similarly, in this year's session of the Connecticut Legislature, CT State Representative Stephen Walko, another lawyer, provided a perfect example of the emphasis that lawyers use on WORDS, when constructing legislation, as opposed to emphasizing something more noble, like their principles.  When debating Senate Bill 6663, Walko questioned the use, and meaning, of simple words such as "the", "its", and "such". (video below)



Amazingly, back in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson described the dilemma that he saw arising, which is what we now face, with a legal system that is constructed, and construed, by lawyers.
"If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?  That one hundred and fifty lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected."
I believe trying to change the meaning of simple words, like "meeting", is a perfect example of what lawyers have been trained to do, and what Jefferson was referring to when he feared legislators who "question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour."