Mitchell W. Pearlman, of Glastonbury, probably knows as much about open government as anyone. He has served as director of both the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of State Ethics. He has taught, lectured and written extensively on the subject, and has consulted on democratic governance both in this country and abroad.
So if Pearlman is concerned about the direction in which the General Assembly is steering this state — and he is — then we should probably take notice. And he says our legislature, which once was a pioneer in open government, having passed the landmark Freedom of Information Act in 1975, “more recently has earned a reputation as one that tolerates corruption and governmental misconduct.”
Then, last summer, the state Supreme Court issued a divided decision that allowed law enforcement agencies to keep more information secret. They can now disclose a bare minimum of arrest information until prosecution, and that can take months, sometimes years. Previously, police had to provide more information about arrests or give good reason why that information should not be made public.
Why this change of direction? Why, four decades after Watergate, are we heading toward more government secrecy?
Fortunately, there’s a bill before the legislature — HB 6750, “An Act Expanding the Requirement for Disclosure of Arrest Records during a Pending Prosecution under the Freedom of Information Act” — that would restore some of the FOIC’s authority, but at the moment it’s bottled up in committee.
Remarkably, the court in its decision explicitly recognized that its interpretation of the law was in need of clarification by the appropriate branch of government — the legislature. For that reason alone, HB 6750 at least deserves a debate by that body.
There are times when police need to withhold information; for instance, to protect the identity of an informer. But the FOI Act already allows for such exceptions, so that’s no reason to hamstring the law.
Society entrusts the police with great power, including the exclusive right to use force. While we believe that most cops honestly try to do the right thing, there have been too many exceptions, both here and across the nation, not to keep safeguards in place.
One of those safeguards was Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, before the court watered it down. HB 6750 would restore some of its bite, so this bill should get a full hearing and debate. Let the General Assembly take the reins and steer our state back toward open government.
What grows in the darkness? Only creepy-crawly things. Let there be light!