Hines Sight / We need openness at town hall
Published 7:47 am, Thursday, February 2, 2012
Transparency, honesty, openness and forthrightness.
Those are words that the previous town administration seemed to be unfamiliar with, evidenced by the Fairfield Metro Center debacle, in which the former first selectman and former town attorney allegedly kept important information and documentation from vital decision-makers, like the Representative Town Meeting and, to a certain extent, the State of Connecticut.
I won't go into the story about the metro center because a) you already know all the details (hopefully) or b) you are sick of reading about it. I suspect the latter is the case. Suffice to say, it appears the duo mislead local officials and the state too.
But enough of those guys.
Let's turn our attention to our current first selectman, Michael Tetreau, whose state of the town address on Jan. 23 set a nice tone with lots of cheerleading to begin the new four-year term. But while he alluded to conducting the town's business with an air of transparency, he didn't actually say that word or other similar ones. And that's a disappointment. We desperately need our chief executive to say it and commit to it.
The town created a Facebook page, which nearly 1,000 people have "liked." On the page, users will find briefs about upcoming events or shared articles from the local newspapers and online media outlets. And Tetreau said he plans on hosting a "budget planning workshop" in the fall, at which the 2012-13 budget (which only is in the deliberation stages now, by the way) will be reviewed and areas of improvement suggested. He said, "The goal is to have a hands-on workshop in preparing our town's budget. What would you like to see changed? How would you fund your changes?"
In a section of his speech called "Better Communication," Tetreau talked about "a new and improved town website" that has been "too long in coming ... It is too important to communicating all that is going on in town." He also mentioned FairTV, which tapes and then broadcasts on its website town board and commission meetings. "Hopefully soon, we will see the newest feature from FairTV -- live broadcasting of our board and commission meetings. There is nothing more important to democracy and our form of government."
All of that is nice, but these don't go far enough. I would have liked to hear him say that he will be marshalling and fostering a new era of honesty and openness in our local government, one that follows the rules of conduct and adheres to the town's charter and the state Freedom of Information Act.
The state Freedom of Information Act? What's that, you say? Well, if residents and our elected leaders are ignorant about this important document, then they ought to read it and read it now. It can be found at www.state.ct.us/foi/. As for the charter, that too is online on the town's website and can be accessed via http://www.fairfieldct.org/towncharter.pdf.
Knowledge of both is essential for our town (and school) leaders to properly conduct the town's business on our behalf. After all, isn't that the point? We elect these people to office hoping that they will do right by us. Remember, it's our money you are playing with, and some of us don't have a lot of it.
The state FOIA spells out all the do's and don'ts for public agencies and public officials when conducting public business as well as the rules for the disclosure of public documents. (Notice how often I used the word "public" here, for emphasis. Get the point?) By the way, the act is intended to protect the public and gives it the tools to be a good watchdog over elected and appointed officials. The act was established in 1975 by the General Assembly and signed into law by then-Gov. Ella Grasso, who spearheaded the effort. The preamble to the act explains its purpose perfectly: "The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know."
Those are powerful words.
To help Fairfield's decision-makers understand the FOIA, a seminar will be facilitated by Town Clerk Betsy Browne and Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Kennelly at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 in Sullivan-Independence Hall.
It better be well attended.