Connecticut’s taxpayer-funded grievance hearings will likely remain open

Wednesday, April 29, 1998

A Connecticut House committee voted 10-7 Tuesday against a measure to keep the public and the press out of employee grievance hearings.

Public employee unions and some policymakers had argued that the hearings are private personnel matters and to open them would be an invasion of employees' privacy. Some of the bill's supporters predicted that open access to the hearings would invite “media circuses” often associated with high-publicity trials.

The Planning and Development Committee vote, which came just six days after the state Senate voted 25-11 in favor of the legislation, was a victory for media groups and Freedom of Information advocates who opposed the bill, citing public interest.

Opponents were joined by Rep. Ronald San Angelo, R-Naugatuck, who urged his colleagues to reject the bill. A taxpayer-funded grievance process should take place in the public domain, Angelo said.

Since the legislative session ends May 6, proponents of the bill have practically acknowledged that the effort is likely to expire.

Vinnie Loffredo, lobbyist for the Connecticut Education Association, said the group anticipated the bill's demise “based on the make-up of the committee.”

Rep. Jefferson Davis, D-Pomfret Center, for example, is the former publisher of a weekly newspaper.

Said Loffredo: “We're running late in the session. The only way it could be moved forward is if we attached or amended it onto an appropriate, and currently-alive and well bill. Then it would go through both bodies.”

The Waterbury Republican-American, a newspaper that successfully challenged the Waterbury Board of Education and the Waterbury Teachers Association over secret grievance hearings for teachers and administrators, credits itself as being the only newspaper that “rallied the troops” to campaign against Senate Bill 275.

The paper's publisher, Bill Pape, said he was pleased with the committee vote, but warned that “it's certainly possible they could get it tacked on to another bill.”

“The importance here is that the news media in the state of Connecticut make a lot of use out of their ability to attend grievance hearings,” Pape said. “If they don't exercise this right they're going to lose it.”

The bill would have nullified 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.

Gov. John G. Rowland told the Republican-American he would have vetoed the bill if it had passed the House. “They should be open. It's public money; the public trust. The public has a right to know.”

Loffredo, said if the measure is raised again, it will happen when next year's session begins in January.