This Wednesday, the state Freedom of Information Commission ruled that members of the UConn Board of Trustees and university officials, including President Susan Herbst and the chief financial officer, were in violation of open-meeting Freedom of Information laws for holding a private, closed door executive session of the board’s financial affairs committee this past June.
On June 24, 2015, reporters were disallowed from entering the executive session, called to review UConn’s $1.3 billion budget proposal. The Board of Trustees then met promptly later that day in an open meeting and approved unanimously, according to UConn Today, next year’s fiscal budget, without any public discussion.
According to the Hartford Courant, UConn officials initially responded to the FOIA claim, filed by a Courant reporter in July, by arguing that certain state statutes allow for meetings regarding preliminary “draft” to be discussed in private.
Given the short amount of time between this executive session and the final vote to pass this budget, however, it is clear that these discussions were anything but preliminary. Rather, closing the session off to the public, in addition to the avoidance of public questioning in the open meeting itself, demonstrate deliberate attempts by the board and administration to push the budget through and the expectation of strong community backlash.
UConn officials later, in admittance that at least part of the session violated open-meetings laws, proposed to the FOI Commission that they recreate and share meetings of the June 24 executive session as a remedy. It is clear that these recreated minutes would risk not being accurate, and that they would hardly suffice to mimic the accountability that public presence and scrutiny at the meeting would have imposed.
The university also argued that these minutes would eliminate the need for a specific conclusion about whether budget data could be withheld. It appears as if the university was only conceding guilt in the hopes that it could potentially withhold budget information again in the future. This was a ridiculous proposition and was rightfully struck down by the commission.
As Lisa Fein Siegel, attorney for the state FOI Commission, said in her decision, the university “sought to avoid having trustees ask sensitive questions in public, such as questions about eliminating academic programs or certain sports programs reducing financial aid, or structuring employee benefits.”
Budget cuts, which left a $28.2 million budget gap, present serious problems for the university. However, to make budget decisions behind closed doors is unacceptable, not only in that it disregards the input of the community, it is intended to serve but as a taxpayer-funded state university. UConn officials and the Board of Trustees must continue to be held accountable by FOIA laws in the future.