Partnership for CT opens first meeting to public, but transparency questions persist | Connecticut Public Radio
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Partnership for CT opens first meeting to public, but transparency questions persist

Oct 9, 2019

The Partnership for Connecticut has invited the public to the first “organizational meeting” of its governing board on October 18, but it’s unclear what portion of that meeting – or subsequent meetings – will be open, or what the board will be discussing. 

The new partnership and its board — a private, non-profit organization created to carry out a public-private collaboration between the state and Dalio Philanthropies — has been the subject of controversy since lawmakers exempted it from state disclosure and ethics rules even though taxpayer money is being used in the endeavor.

Andrew Ferguson, a senior staff member at Dalio Philanthropies, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed Tuesday. The spokeswoman instead issued a statement from the partnership saying, “As with all non-profit boards, portions of Partnership board meetings will happen in closed executive session.”

“We will communicate openly to the public about decisions made in these meetings and the rationale behind them. The website will also make meeting materials available to the public.”

Republican legislative leaders, who are two of five elected officials on the 13-member board, said they don’t know what will be discussed during the public and private portions of the first meeting, or whether future meetings will be open to the public.

“I’m not clear on that,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Tuesday. “You know there’s been a lot of questions and concerns we’ve had.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said that he expects that “actions will probably always be in the public, I would think. It’s discussions that might end up being in private I suppose.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, could not be reached for comment, but said in a statement the partnership has told him the agenda and other materials for the upcoming meeting will be provided by Friday.

“I believe there must be openness and transparency in this process,” Looney said in the statement, “since the expenditure of public funds is involved.”

The private-public collaboration was announced in April when hedge fund giant Ray Dalio and his wife, Barbara, joined Gov. Ned Lamont to announce that Dalio Philanthropies would donate $100 million over five years to help students in struggling schools. That donation will be matched by $100 million in state funds over the same five-year-period, with the hope that another $100 million could be raised from other donors.

All of the money will be overseen by the Partnership for Connecticut.

But Dalio Philanthropies also asked that the partnership be exempt from state disclosure rules, a request that was granted in June by Gov. Ned Lamont and the Democrat-controlled legislature. Since then, legislative leaders who sit on the partnership board have balked at some of the other proposed conditions, such as one that would create a five-member executive committee to oversee most of the partnership’s work while excluding all of the elected officials who are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Lawmakers also objected to a request that they unanimously approve — via email — a tentative budget, nearly $250,000 in executive compensation, and various operating procedures before the partnership’s first meeting.

Max Reiss, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont said the governor, who is one of the elected officials on the board, “is thrilled that [the meeting is] going to be open, but also most excited that it’s getting off the ground. He’s so excited that the partnership is finally able to do the good work for Connecticut students and families.”

But it was clear from statements from the partnership Tuesday that a portion of the meeting is likely to be held in private.

“When a meeting goes into executive session,” the partnership said in a statement, “that portion of the meeting is closed to the public so that directors may develop a strong and healthy culture and discuss confidential information, policy discussions, and other items necessary to advance the Partnership’s mission.

“The basic design of board meetings having a portion take place in executive session is very common among non profits and will serve as the design for the partnership board going forward. We are confident that the board will work well together in reaching consensus around the particular practices for how they will operate together in pursuit of the Partnership’s mission.”

Klarides said she is so concerned about transparency that she refused when Ferguson asked her to meet with him last month to discuss the agenda for the upcoming meeting.

“I appreciated him reaching out, I did, but because I have such concerns about the ethics and freedom of information issues that surround this board and because there’s so much state money involved in it, I didn’t feel like having a meeting outside of the full board was appropriate before any committees or anything else is set up,” Klarides said.

A “transparency” explanation from the partnership on its website said that “meeting materials” will be posted on the website.

It also reiterated that the five elected officials on the board — called ex officio members — will comply with FOIA, noting that they are on the board “because of their position as public office holders and their commitment to education and improving outcomes for at-risk youth and young adults.” “Records in the possession of these ex officio members will be subject to disclosure under FOIA in response to a proper request,” the website says.

“Records within the possession of Board members and staff who are not ex officio members as public office holders are not subject to FOIA.”

The ex officio members are allowed to vote, a spokeswoman for the partnership said Tuesday.

The first partnership meeting is scheduled from 8 to 11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 18 at 4 Science Park in New Haven.