Friday, October 26, 2007

Jury Duty

Genghis Conn of Connecticut Local Politics just posted a notice that I think is very relevant: He is off to jury duty.

Now, I have met few people who like jury duty. It interrupts lives, you have to do it, legally, it could cost you money and most people consider it just to be an all around pain. I agree, having had to do it, myself.

On the other hand, the jury system really is a critically important protection for us all. Government officials can accuse people of crimes, but regular people decide if the accusations are correct. And, in civil lawsuits decided by jury, it is average, everyday people who decide which side is right - an important way of helping ensure that everyone stands on equal footing, even when one side in the lawsuit is very powerful.

So, while jury duty is a hassle, the idea of not having the protections of the jury system would be far worse.

Of course, that said, as a state legislator, I continue to be approached by people raising questions about the system by which people are selected for jury duty. People, from time to time - usually after they just got another jury duty notice - tell me that they frequently get called for jury duty. Typically, they also point out people they know who hardly ever (or never) get called.

Now, you do not have to serve jury duty if you have already served in the past three years. But, you can, in fact, serve jury duty again, if you were just called. The law, statutes section 51-217a(a), says that
A person shall be excused from jury service during the jury year commencing September 1, 1999, and each jury year thereafter, upon request of that person, if during the next three preceding jury years such person appeared in a court for jury service and was not excused from such jury service.
So, on the one hand, there is not a problem.

But, let me pose what I think are two fair premises. First, most people would rather that they did not get a second jury duty notice if they just served. So I think few people would object if their recent service made it unlikely that they would be called for jury duty in the near future.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I think that the fairness of the system is best preserved if everyone who is eligible for jury duty eventually does have to serve. Then, it truly is something that we all have to do.

So, I am thinking about trying to get legislation brought up in the legislature's Judiciary Committee (of which I am a member) in the next regular legislative session to say that, in jury selection process, you cannot be called for jury duty if you already served and there are still eligible people who have not been called. Likewise, if you have been called twice, you should not be called again ahead of someone who has only been called once.

There might be some things that would have to be adjusted in this idea to ensure that the pool of people from which juries are drawn is representative of the state's population, but this seems like a sound, efficient, common sense thing to do.

For more information on how juries are selected, here is a report from the Office of Legislative Research that you might find informative.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A new playground at Lincoln School.

This morning, I was able to pitch-in a little at the installation of the new playground at the Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain. It is a really nifty playground, and I am sure the kids are going to really like it when it is done.

It has several rock-climbing elements, which I found interesting. Years ago, when I was in better shape, I did rock climbing, myself.

I helped place some things (best I can describe them) into the ground. They are twisted-shaped standing objects that kids will be able to climb on. My role, really, was helping to lift one of them, place them into the hole in the ground, and hold it while the concrete in the hole set. Then I helped a little with putting up one of the new basketball hoops.

I was just there for a little while. There were others that had been there for a while. It was really great to see so many people from the community volunteering their time for this mini construction project. It imagined that this must have been like, in ages past, when a whole town would turn out to put up a barn or a town schoolhouse.

For me, it was a good break from the intense local politics going on. I got into public service because I want to make a difference, and I believe very much in being honest with the people I represent about what is going on in politics and government. It saddens me very much to see any elected officials placing political spin and insider gain over the truth and honesty. It is too bad that New Britain's Republicans have mired themselves in that kind of politics.

I like being able talk to non-political people and participate in event like today's community construction work. It is a refreshing break, and reminds me what I believe so strongly - that people are basically good, and they are glad to work together to make things better for everyone.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

All Day Kindergarten in New Britain schools.

I am a participant in the local education blog in New Britain, "Supporting New Britain Schools," and I write on that blog from time to time.

I just wrote a post on Supporting New Britain Schools about the recent article in the New Britain Herald on the all day kindergarten program in New Britain. Here are some of the comments I made there:
It is a good thing that an all day kindergarten program has been implemented in New Britain. Getting this done is one of the reasons I have been working for increased education funding from the state. Of course, while we were able to win a very large increase in state education funding this year, this article points show that the even larger amounts I have been pressing for are truly needed.

There are some very real and tangible ways we know that we can increase kids' chances in life, like all day kindergarten. But the property tax system already imposes an unfair burden on New Britain taxpayers. So we are caught between denying kids what they need, on the one hand, and unfair, high property taxes on the other.

And these are the reasons why I feel so strongly that that it is high time that all state policy-makers step up to the plate and do the right thing for all of Connecticut's kids.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Public Auditors: accountability and efficiency, and could be more.

One of the least known offices in the legislature are the Auditors of Public Accounts. This is office that was created a long time ago. Its establishment was a very good idea, and still is.

The reason why the office has a plural name ("Auditors") is because it is run, on a co-equal basis, a Democratic Auditor and a Republican Auditor. The Republican is Robert G. Jaekle and the Democrat is Kevin P. Johnston. They work very well together, and the partisan balance helps people feel confident that the reviews they provide are based on the fact rather than politics.

When most people think of an "auditor", they consider the role of a corporate auditor - someone who reviews the finances of a corporation or agency and makes sure the accounting is done correctly. And the Connecticut Auditors of Public Accounts do that important function.

But that is only one part of the reviews that the Auditors provide. They dig far deeper into the way state agencies run than just whether their books balance. They provide thorough reviews of the way agencies operate and offer critique on how things could be more efficient. Typically, when the Auditors offer this critique, agencies will start making changes to fix the problems that were found even before the Auditors' report on it is published. In this way, the Auditors have a very good track record in saving taxpayer money.

Another, perhaps equally important service the Auditors provide is that they examine how state agencies are doing in following the state's laws. This is very important in our Constitutional system of government because, when state agencies feel that they can get away with ignoring the laws approved by the people's elected representatives, the Auditors call them on it. This improves the transparency and accountability of government agencies.

The Auditors are such an important and useful function at the state level of government that, when I was a member of the New Britain City Council, a local Republican activist and I created a proposal to establish an Auditor position for the city, modeled on the state Auditors of Public Accounts and other nonpartisan legislative offices. The idea was dismissed when I was on the Council, but a later Council took it up and approved it, and actually had an Auditor for a while - who did good work. She was, unfortunately, pushed out of City Hall by some ugly politics, but it would be a great idea for the taxpayers if the City Council would fill that position again.

I would also note that I think that the work of the state Auditors could be used much better by the main people they report to - the legislature.

The Auditors issue detailed reports on all state agencies on a regular basis, with a lot of good recommendations and even more details that would be helpful to decision-makers if they were fully utilized. The Auditors are not supposed to be an advocacy group. When they discover that something is awry, their only job is to write it down and send it in a report to the legislature. Anything more aggressive than this would compromise their professional separation from the intense politics of the legislature.

It is the legislature's job to take up anything that the Auditors discover, large or small. That is the part that could be done better. I think that the Auditors reports - which, by their nature, are pretty dry reading - should be routinely brought into the public discussions at the Capitol.

The legislature holds public hearings on many things, more and more. In the last couple of weeks, alone, three of the four committees on which I sit have held hearings and meetings on things ranging from federal grant funding, to the taxpayer data on the stolen state computer, to the Governor's new parole policies. Public hearings are a very good way to have an open an public discussion about important issues in our state.

So, my idea is that, whenever the Auditors issue one of their regular reports on a state agency, the legislative committee responsible for that agency should hold a public hearing on the report. This will give Mr. Jaekle and Mr. Johnston the ability to present the major points their staff have discovered and recommended. And, it will allow legislators to ask questions of both the Auditors and, of course, of the heads of the agencies being reviewed, to gain an even better understanding of what is happening, and not happening, in state government - and what can be done to make things run better. This knowledge, in turn, could then be used by legislators in crafting better legislation for the state and in the annual state budget process.

I have been trying to gain support for this idea, and I will bring it up again in this coming year's legislative session. I think it would help to save taxpayer money, improve public accountability, make government run better and help legislators to do a better job for the people.