Malloy’s plan to merge watchdog agencies draws fire -- from the watchdogs
Published 4:20 pm, Monday, May 30, 2011
HARTFORD -- When might a state office wind up filing complaints or lawsuits or launching investigations against itself?
It could happen if the General Assembly completes a plan to merge nine so-called watchdog agencies, including the Office of State Ethics, the Freedom of Information Commission and the Elections Enforcement Commission, into a new Office of Government Accountability.
The merger, initiated by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to help streamline government, was still being hashed out Thursday behind closed doors by legislators drafting bills to implement the two-year budget. Also included in the new office are the smaller victim and child advocates, Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, Contracting Standards Board, and the Judicial Review Council and Judicial Selection Commission.
Critics, including officials running some of the agencies involved, have spent the week trying to impress upon legislators their concerns about a possible loss of independence and resources. A vote on the merger plan could come in the House of Representatives late Thursday night. It would still face Senate action.
"A lot of these changes have not been discussed in a hearing," said Karen Hobert Flynn of the nonprofit Common Cause. "A lot of stuff at the Capitol happens like that. (But) the people who are regulated by those watchdogs are working in ways the public can't see on fixes that will be rammed through at the 11th hour." The session ends June 8.
Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, has been roaming the Capitol bending as many legislative ears as possible. Her agency is currently involved in pending litigation in New Britain court with the FOIC.
If the merger occurs, Carson noted, "We're suing ourselves. How do you do that?"
And FOIC, according to executive director Colleen Murphy, has two cases pending against elections enforcement. She argues her agency has oversight over the eight others involved in the merger plan. Carson makes a similar point -- that ethics codes apply to other agencies.
"It could create some interesting situations (where) we're investigating someone within our own agency," Carson said.
Harp said an administrator will run the new accountability office, but be solely responsible for back-office functions. The merged agencies will retain their individual executive leaders, commissions and missions. The administrator will be chosen by the governor from a list of candidates supplied by a committee of agency representatives. Harp said the agencies will also be asked going forward to recommend exactly where they believe they can partner to find efficiencies to make the new department function.
But the governor has a strong influence on the makeup of the six smaller agencies, which some argue still gives the executive branch too much control over the final makeup and leadership of the new department.
"People who don't have the same independence we do," Murphy said. "They will outnumber us."
Critics of Malloy's plan also argue that sharing administrative costs could hamper the work of some of the busier entities like Elections Enforcement, Ethics and the FOIC. And they cite the governor's desire to return budgetary control of the watchdogs to the executive branch. In 2004 that was turned over to the General Assembly at the height of the ethical scandals surrounding then-Republican Gov. John G. Rowland.
"This is not about not trusting Malloy," Hobert Flynn said. But, she argued, the more control the chief executive can exert over the watchdogs, the greater the perception that branch of government has conflicts.
Harp said the Legislature wants to retain budget authority, but the proposal does give the agency administrator some control over the new department's budget.
"The (Malloy) administration's not happy. It's a compromise they don't particularly like," she said.
Malloy adviser Roy Occhiogrosso said the governor never wanted to undermine the watchdogs' independence and as long as costs can be reduced will be satisfied.
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at email@example.com