Connecticut considers shutting public, press out of grievance hearings

Thursday, April 23, 1998

A measure to keep the public and the press out of employee grievance hearings is moving through the Connecticut Legislature.

Senators voted 25-11 on Wednesday in favor of Senate Bill 275. The legislation, now before the House, would allow public employees to bring complaints against their employers without jeopardizing their privacy or subjecting the courtroom to “media circuses,” backers of the bill claim.

The effort to exempt grievance hearings from public scrutiny pits media groups and Freedom-of-Information advocates against policymakers and public employees unions.

Mitchell W. Pearlman, executive director and general counsel of the state's Freedom of Information Commission, said that teachers unions — namely the Connecticut Education Association — argue that the hearings are private personnel matters and to open them would be an invasion of employees' privacy.

Pearlman, however, disagrees. “How a person performs on the job is public business. It isn't just a personal matter. There's an overriding public interest in many of these issues and they ought to not close them down for that purpose,” he said.

“Privacy is a legitimate interest in American law and society,” Pearlman said. “But oftentimes it's misapplied. How an employee performs as a public servant is not an invasion of privacy even though that's what's being claimed.”

Vinnie Loffredo, lobbyist for the Education Association, has not returned phone calls.

Brigitte Greenberg, state Sunshine Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, called the bill “worrisome.” She also disputes proponents' privacy concerns.

“Grievance hearings are obviously a matter of public interest since taxpayers finance public agencies and their employees,” Greenberg said. “The grievance process, the testimony delivered, and the sources of the testimony are vital parts of the story when the public is deciding which side to support.”

The bill would nullify a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling that evidence and testimony offered during a grievance hearing should be open to the public. Negotiations over remedies or settlements, however, should be closed, the court said.

The ruling was a victory for news organizations, including the Waterbury Republican-American. The newspaper successfully challenged the Waterbury Board of Education and the Waterbury Teachers Association over secret grievance hearings for teachers and administrators.

The paper's publisher, Bill Pape, said that the controversy began seven years ago when “reporters wanting to know the issues sat in on a grievance hearing and got thrown out.” The FOI challenge in what Pape calls a “highly unionized state” has cost the paper $33,000 so far.

Said Pape: “Public employees are public employees, and if they're complaining about working conditions, or those sorts of things, this ought to be public knowledge.”

“Sometimes, the public loses sight of what these freedom-of-information issues mean to them,” read a recent editorial in the Republican-American. “Granted, they can be esoteric, but this case is demonstrably different.” For example, the scope of the “city's crumbling schools … first came to light during a grievance hearing. The revelation led parents to demand repairs to safeguard their children and inspired city officials to draft a $17 million plan to fix the schools.”

Pape acknowledged that the bill, which was introduced in the Senate Labor Committee, made legislative progress “before we spotted it.” Since then, he said he's noticed little if any broadcast groups joining the opposition.

“The best chance to beat it may have been in the Senate,” Pape said.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Gary LeBeau (D-East Hartford) and other Senate sponsors were unavailable for comment.