by Michele Jacklin and Jeffrey Daniels
Continuing their effort to draw the shade over the window of government accountability and transparency, General Assembly leaders have abandoned the longstanding practice of routinely transcribing the testimony presented at hundreds of public hearings held during legislative sessions.
The decision, made without the benefit of public input, marks the latest setback for Connecticut’s 43-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was once the strongest in the nation and a model emulated by other states and countries.
To the surprise of many, transcripts of the vast majority of public hearings held during the recently adjourned 2018 legislative session don’t exist. Officials from the Office of Legislative Management and the House and Senate say transcription services have fallen victim to budget cuts.
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the state’s preeminent guardian of the FOIA, and other open-government advocates, strongly condemn this action, and believe it marks the continued erosion of the public’s right to know about goings-on at the State Capitol and in state government.
Most bills, including spending and tax proposals, are subject to public hearings at which state officials, special interests, lawmakers and, most importantly, Joe and Jane Q. Public are able to voice their opinions.
Although written testimony still will be available on the legislature’s website, the give-and-take between those testifying and committee members will be known only to the people in the hearing room. That’s unfortunate because the commentary provided by lawmakers is often used to ascertain legislative intent. Moreover, not everyone who testifies submits written copies.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, says transcripts are important because public hearings provide the first cut of history and the first glimpse of the impetus for proposed bills. Testimony also offers insight into what the tensions and concerns are, as well as the initial impressions of the legislators who will later vote on the measures.
“As such, public hearing transcripts, which preserve the dialog and lines of inquiry, are a valuable component of legislative history and serve an important historical and archival function,” said Murphy.
Murphy was a member of a task force that met in 2010 and was charged with making recommendations regarding the conversion of legislative records from paper to electronic form. According to the group’s final report, “the task force was presented with an overwhelming amount of testimony opposing elimination of public hearing transcriptions.”
Among those testifying were members of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, including the offices of the attorney general, chief court administrator, chief public defender and the Division of Criminal Justice. Others included the Connecticut Bar Association and the Southern New England Law Librarians Association. Ultimately, the vote to oppose elimination of the transcripts was unanimous.
Opposition has not abated and open-government advocates, including CCFOI, view the decision by legislative leaders as yet another step in limiting accountability and curtailing transparency.
“The people of Connecticut deserve open and accountable government and this is leadership in the wrong direction,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut. “It has the practical effect of further isolating citizens from those in Hartford who are supposed to be acting on our behalf. We need more information — not less — about issues being debated in the General Assembly. It is unacceptable for decisions related to access to information be made in the dark, without public input.
Quickmire, Murphy and CCFOI President Zachary Janowski are among those who are urging legislative leaders to reverse their decision.
“Legislative leaders need to restore public access to their public hearings,” said Janowski. “Why invite citizens to testify if that part of the process isn’t going to be available to them or to citizens who, in the future, are trying to understand why certain decisions were made? Making open government an option instead of a requirement will ensure that Connecticut residents won’t get transparency when it’s needed most: when lawmakers have something to hide.”
The elimination of most transcripts comes in the wake of the legislature’s move to restrict the public’s ability to observe their state government in action via CT-N, the cable channel owned by the legislature. For 18 years, cameras operated by the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN) were focused on all three branches of government, giving TV viewers unfiltered access to state government operations.
However, legislative leaders failed to renew the contract in late 2017 and wrested control of the operation from CPAN, halting the airing of activities by the executive and judicial branches and training the cameras exclusively on themselves. The move was seen as a public relations ploy designed to give lawmakers more exposure. The seizing of editorial control by legislative leaders also halted coverage of press conferences, state nominating conventions, the program “Capitol Reports,” which summarized the weekly activities of the legislature, and Election Night results.
Of this latest action, Murphy said: “Eliminating transcriptions from the public sphere is essentially like eliminating the corner piece of a puzzle. Lawyers, judges and members of the public often search for that piece to completely understand the topic they are researching — the puzzle’s picture. If the legislative hearing piece no longer resides in the puzzle box, legislative history and legislative intent, like the puzzle, will forever be incomplete.”