Conn. Legislators Allow Utilities Commision Private Meetings
Connecticut state legislators have approved a change to the state’s Freedom of Information law that will allow members of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority commission to talk to each other in private between scheduled meetings.
The commission is made up of three members. That means the number of people necessary to make decisions at a meeting is only two. So when two commissioners talked to each other about a case at any time it was considered a meeting, and had to be treated like a public hearing.
“The commissioners couldn’t discuss the cases amongst themselves so they would have to literally send messages through other staff,” said Michael Coyle, a spokesperson for the authority. “It was awkward. It was cumbersome and administratively inefficient.”
Coyle said the new rules will allow the authority’s commissioners to have normal conversations about cases, and better understand the cases they’re working on.
The scheduled meetings between all three commissioners when they take votes are still public. The commission’s decisions and the rationale behind those decisions are also public documents.
Tom Swan, who represents a government watchdog called Connecticut Citizen Action Group, said the change will allow any two members of the three-person Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to effectively choose the outcome of cases without real public scrutiny. “If two people go into a meeting with an agreement as to how they’re going to vote, then the meeting’s already happened in a de facto manner,” he said. “They can put forward a public rationale that’s been developed in secretive dialog and discussions.”
The changes were passed with hundreds of other measures in Connecticut’s state-budget-implementing bill passed on June 30, and first reported on by the Journal Inquirer. “It didn’t come to light until after the budget passed,” said reporter Michael Savino, who reported on the change.
Swan says that burying the change in a larger bill was sneaky. “This is more reminiscent of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin than the Constitution State,” he said. “This is outrageous. The governor and the legislature should be embarrassed by their action.” (On the Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend this year, Wisconsin’s finance committee voted to add a provision in the state budget bill that would change public records laws, a move which would curtail public access to communications between elected officials and staff.)
A spokesperson for Governor Dannel Malloy declined to comment.