Glenn Richter’s March 8 R-J “Perspective” column begins by using his Duck Test: “If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” But apparently, his real duck test has to be: ducks are birds; some ducks are white; so, therefore, all white birds are ducks.
That had to be what he really meant to make the Grand Canyon-wide leap of logic to conclude that Wallingford Center, Inc., and the UConn Foundation are comparable because they both claim exemption from the state Freedom of Information Act.
I am distressed by the simplistic characterization of WCI’s efforts to defend its independence as maintaining a “cloak of secrecy”. Complex issues such as this one all too often get reduced to misleading and politically lazy shorthand, and this is one of those cases. As one of those named in the FOI complaint, I offer these two points:
First of all, there is no “cloak of secrecy”: WCI presents a detailed budget to the Wallingford Town Council every single year, and appears before that body as often as requested. Its board meetings are not closed. WCI welcomes scrutiny, especially by Town Councilors and especially in the form of volunteering to help in its events, which several do. The fact is that Town Councilors themselves have been serving on our Board for years. What WCI objected to, and is spending many hours defending against, is the unwarranted assumption that its acceptance of public funds automatically means that it completely surrenders its rights as a private organization.
Councilor Fishbein contends that our acceptance of town funds automatically gives him the right to direct the organization’s business, and that, in conforming to his assumed entitlement, we are subject to all the regulations of a government agency. This includes public posting of all meetings and board meeting minutes. On the face of it, the public postings seem an innocuous request; but we concluded that, if we were to protect our rights as a private organization of volunteers, it was time to draw the line.
Secondly, comparing little ol’ WCI with the UConn Foundation is, well, bizarre. Wallingford Center, Inc., has an annual budget of $130,175 and its total assets consist of office furniture and supplies worth maybe $5,000. The UConn Foundation manages assets of $489 million and took in $81 million last year alone. WCI was created by private citizens to promote the vitality of the center of Wallingford and has never, ever been under the control of town government. The UConn Foundation’s mission “is to solicit, receive, invest, and administer gifts and financial resources from private sources for the benefit of all campuses and programs of the University of Connecticut.” In other words, it was established exclusively as an arm of a State of Connecticut agency, its public university system.
The UConn Foundation is under scrutiny because of some dubious decisions, such as lavishing $250,000 on Hillary Clinton for a 30-minute appearance and providing a significant portion of a questionable salary increase to UConn’s president while, at the same time, that person cried to the state legislature that the university is strapped. WCI, on the other hand, is under no such controversy, a fact that Fishbein admits as such.
The first sentence on the FOI website reads: “The Freedom of Information Commission’s mission is to administer and enforce the provisions of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, and to thereby ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut” [my emphasis]. In the dispute between WCI and Town Councilor Fishbein, the Freedom of Information Act is being turned on its head and being inappropriately used as a tool of governmental authority to insert itself into the operation of a private organization under the guise of “watching out for the taxpayer.” WCI is defending itself against this unwarranted and precedent-setting intrusion on behalf of all such nonprofit organizations.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.