If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is, for all intents and purposes, a duck. That’s the Duck Test, which is being applied right now at both the local and state levels.
In Wallingford, Town Councilor Craig Fishbein has asked the state Freedom of Information Commission to decide whether Wallingford Center Inc. is a public entity, and therefore covered by the Freedom of Information Act. In Hartford, some lawmakers are asking the same question about the University of Connecticut Foundation Inc. Both of these institutions maintain that they should be exempt from FOIA, so this is about the public’s right to know.
WCI defines itself as a “private, nonprofit organization” dedicated to “the beautification, preservation, promotion and economic revitalization of Wallingford’s center for the benefit of all the people of Wallingford.” The UConn Foundation says its mission is “to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut.”
Which is all well and good, but why do both these civic-minded outfits insist that they must operate behind a cloak of secrecy?
Fishbein argues that WCI gets most of its funding from the town and performs activities that were handled by town government in the past. Richard Gee, a lawyer for WCI, argues that the Center “may be an ally of Town Government,” but the town doesn’t control it, and “funding alone, without control, is not enough” to make it a public entity.
State Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, says the UConn Foundation “really could be considered a functional equivalent of a government organization” because it serves a governmental function and it, too, receives public funding.
Although the general trend in this state — since 1975, when Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed the landmark Freedom of Information Act into law — has been toward open government, in recent years there have been setbacks, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s campaign to bring the formerly independent Freedom of Information Commission under executive control.
Fishbein has said he isn’t questioning “whether or not WCI does a good job,” but that “taxpayers are entitled to know the who, what and why of the use of their money.” In a situation where questions could easily arise as to who may benefit most from the Center’s actions, this seems like a reasonable proposition.
As for the Foundation, James H. Smith, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former executive editor of this newspaper, has pointed out that because it acts as a “surrogate” for UConn and “manages hundreds of millions of dollars,” the public “deserves detailed information” so it can judge the Foundation’s activities. While the claim has been made that openness will have “a chilling effect” on donations to the Foundation, discussions have already covered ways in which donor anonymity could be protected — which would put the focus on the what, where and when of its functions, rather than on the who — so it’s hard to see the sense of that argument. At the same time, it seems strange — and maybe even wrong — that more than a third of the university president’s annual compensation now comes from the UConn Foundation, a source that’s not the state of Connecticut and that’s not answerable to the people of the state of Connecticut.
When you’re working with public money and the public interest, what you do is public information. Or should be.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.