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Sunshine Week: Time to think about open government

Discussions of and decisions on the state, town and educational budgets are a large part of the conversation in Northwest Corner towns right now, as evidenced in recent articles in this newspaper. And there will be more such coverage in the weeks to come, as approved budgets go to public hearings and then final votes. The outcome of all of these budgets has the specter of the looming state budget cuts and increased costs (for items like one-third of teachers’ pensions) hanging over them.

As they are handling the public hearings and votes, however, this newspaper will make a strong plea (what better time to do that than Sunshine Week?) that the boards and towns running the meetings be especially aware of the requirements of open government regulations, as well as the spirit of openness that makes the process work that much better for all involved. 

From taxpayers and voters to board members and administrators, all have a stake in a successful outcome after the months of work put into the fiscal health of our communities, but also in having all the information available to them to make the right decisions when it comes time to vote. 

One part of any meeting agenda that can be confusing to those creating it is the need for an executive session, or more descriptively, secret session. Our public officials need to have an awareness of their responsibility to make information open to their constituents, who pay the bills. 

For instance, if a discussion has to do with specific, named personnel, then it’s valid to be a part of executive session, according to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. Employees can choose themselves to have the discussion of their salaries or performance open, but the board may not make that decision for them. 

However, if the discussion is about a process of evaluation,  for instance, or a job description, a set of goals  or the definition of a formula for raises for a position rather than for a specific person in that job, then that should be done in open meeting. After all, taxpayers have a right to know what they are paying for, and what they should expect in return for their investment.

In addition, it’s important for the meetings to allow for public comment. The time can be limited, but those who take the time and energy to attend these meetings in person should not only be commended for doing so, but also be given the chance to express their opinions  or ask questions for their trouble. 

It can be daunting to have the responsibility of deciding what should be open and what should not be open to the public in a meeting. But if officials take the attitude that information should be open, period, except in very rare circumstances, it will make the decision easier. 

If in doubt, a call to Public Education Officer Thomas A. Hennick at the  state Freedom of Information Commission (toll free, 866-374-3617) can clarify the correct path to take. He is accessible and practical and knows the law inside and out. Better to understand what is behind the law than to err by guessing. 

To learn more about any citizen’s right to know what government is doing, visit the state Freedom of Information websites: www.ctfog.org; www.ct.gov/foi/site/default.asp; www.ctfoicouncil.nfoic.net or find them on Facebook. Or, for more on Sunshine Week, go to www.sunshineweek.rcfp.org.