Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, filed a Freedom of Information request with the Office of the Governor for all documents, emails and information pertaining to Gov. Ned Lamont’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, setting up a potential showdown over the advisory group’s exemption from the state’s transparency laws.
The advisory group, which is made up of doctors and health experts, representatives from business associations, labor, education and government officials, is not entirely subject to FOI laws, according to the governor.
Lamont’s Senior Communications Manager Max Reiss said the emails and communications of those government officials serving on the advisory group will still be subject to FOI disclosure, and Lamont said the group’s leaders will be giving regular updates on their progress.
“The disclosure of this requested information is in the public interest, and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of the policy decisions reached by the Office of the Governor,” Fishbein wrote. “If you deny any or all of this request, please cite specific exemption that you feel justifies the refusal to release the information.”
“The fact of the matter is that myself and the other residents of Connecticut are entitled to an open and transparent disclosure of the creation, appointment and doings of this unilaterally created group,” Fishbein said. “The process should not be shrouded in darkness or be without sufficient transparency or public scrutiny.”
The announcement that the advisory group would have exemptions from FOI laws drew criticism from Republican House Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who issued a press release saying “it is not enough” that the advisory group have a website and address the public.
“These decisions are too important to allow them to be shaped behind closed doors,” Klarides said. “Unless Connecticut residents have confidence that its leaders are open and up front about what they are doing in what should be a truly public process, they will be skeptical about the outcomes.”
Some of that skepticism has already manifested in two drive-by protests outside the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion by people calling for the state to reopen.
Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly Conservative Caucus were also critical that the advisory group did not include any members from the legislature.
In a letter dated April 24, Conservative Caucus Chair Mike France, R-Ledyard, wrote, “We firmly believe that the General Assembly, as a whole, through their respective leadership, should be afforded a day to day role in the Advisory Group.”
The 2020 legislative session has officially been canceled and lawmakers have essentially been sidelined following the governor’s declaration of a public health emergency, allowing him to issue executive orders in response to the pandemic.
Although the task force has just begun their work, potential dates for reopening businesses remain a moving target based on infection and hospitalization rates.
Lamont extended the shut down until May 20; Indra Nooyi – co-chair of the advisory group – said businesses may begin to slowly reopen sometime in June and now Lamont has floated the possibility of starting re-open businesses in 7 – 10 days because hospitalization rates have flattened and begun to decline.
Fishbein’s freedom of information request will likely be partially denied. That could lead to a complaint before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and potentially a court case.
The transparency issue is similar to that of the Partnership for Connecticut – a $100 million non-profit venture between the Dalio Foundation and the state of Connecticut focused on education initiatives.
The partnership was initially exempt from all FOI disclosures, spurring push-back from some lawmakers and the media.
Attorney General William Tong issued an opinion saying elected lawmakers serving on the partnership were not exempt from the state’s transparency laws.