Task Forces, Special Commissions Marked Rell Years

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By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Task forces, study committees and commissions have been a hallmark of outgoing Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s six-year tenure leading Connecticut.

An Associated Press review of the Republican governor’s executive orders, as well as task force reports obtained through a public records request, shows that Rell created more than two dozen such panels to report back to her on everything from the state’s 375th anniversary celebration to unfunded pension obligations.

The groups yielded mixed results.

The Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council, for example, has been credited with helping to make Connecticut a marketplace for the first wave of mass-produced electric vehicles. But the groups’ recommendations didn’t necessarily lead to new laws and, in several cases, Rell’s administration did not provide reports on the task forces that were requested by the AP.
“There were some good ones. But other ones, we just didn’t pay much attention to,” House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said.

“I think she kind of missed being a legislator,” Donovan added. “It’s kind of like she’s forming committees. Well, that’s what the legislature is for. I wish she had tried less to have her own separate legislature and worked with us.”

Wednesday will mark Rell’s final day as governor, as Democratic Gov.-elect Dan Malloy is sworn into office. Looking back, Rell’s office says she is proud of the work performed by the task forces and commissions.

“People take shots when they really don’t know the true story. And really, she has used the talents and the abilities of a lot of people in this state, in and out of state government, to help solve some of the challenges,” Rell spokeswoman Donna Tommelleo said.

Besides the electric vehicle council, Tommelleo pointed to the Connecticut Health Care Reform Advisory Board as an example of a successful task force. That board was charged with examining the federal health care reform law and making recommendations on ways to help tailor the new legislation to the state’s needs.

She also referred to the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, which was charged with recommending ways to help close the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. The group produced a 24-page report that included ideas such as “let the new governor lead the charge” for accountability in public schools and increasing student access to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

Matt O’Connor, the communications director for CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, a union that represents thousands of state employees, doesn’t take much stock in Rell’s task forces.

“Is there a pattern of the governor responding to a crisis by forming a commission to put forward recommendations that are either shelved, ignored or trumpeted in a press conference before they are shelved or ignored? Yes,” he said.

He criticizes the outgoing governor for exulting the State Contracting Reform Task Force she created in 2005 in the wake of the scandal that snared her predecessor, former Gov. John G. Rowland, and later vetoing several versions of a bill that would have created a board to review state contracts. Rell and the state employee unions were at odds over rules for privatized contracts.

She later established the board, using her executive power. After months of delays because of the state’s budget deficit, the board is now meeting, but with limited funding.

“At a time when it really should have been performing and fulfilling its original responsibility, it was allowed to just peter out,” O’Connor said.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Rell acknowledged the delay in making the board a functioning watchdog group. She said there have been problems with being able to pay for the board, given the state’s budget crisis.
“It is up and running, but on a very limited basis and I believe it’s working,” she said.
Rell maintains she was still able to clean up state contracting using her executive powers, making the process more fair for companies bidding on state work.

“We did it without having legislation, by simply doing some of the things that would prohibit what I would call the good old boy network,” Rell said. “Those who did business with the state appreciated they had a fair chance now.”
O’Connor also criticized Rell for a news conference two years ago where she announced plans to resurrect an old committee that was supposed to reward state employees who come up with innovative ideas for saving the state money.

“The idea of reaching out to state workers and actually putting out the website and holding the press conference, it was the start of something good,” O’Connor said. “But like so many of these other not-fully-thought-out approaches, it just didn’t produce anything meaningful at the end.”

Kevin DelGobbo, chairman of the state’s Department of Public Utility Control, has sat on various commissions over the years as a state lawmaker and in his current job. He said not all task forces are created equal. Some, he admits, are more useful than others.

He points to the commissions that investigated the deadly Kleen Energy plant explosion in Middletown, came up with plans for electric vehicles in Connecticut, and proposed ideas for financially stabilizing the state’s hospitals as examples of successful and useful task forces and commissions.
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`They all have had and will have a direct impact,” he said.
DelGobbo said he believes task forces can bring together people with different skills and backgrounds.

“Almost no matter what policy question you’re talking about these days, they are all multidisciplinary. And agencies, on the local, state and federal level, tend to naturally silo their views of things based on their little view of the world,” he said.

Malloy, who has criticized state agencies for operating out of silos, said task forces and committees can be useful to come up with innovative solutions and gather information. But he said they can also be created to provide political cover or defer issues.

“I think in some cases we create task forces really knowing the answer and more often than not it’s a deferral,” he said. “And I’m not big on deferrals.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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