Having worked for five years as a journalist in New York, a state with relatively weak freedom-of-information laws, I have long bragged about living in Connecticut, where our Freedom of Information Commission actually has some teeth.
In New York, if I was barred unlawfully from a meeting or denied access to public records, all I could really do was either file an FOI request for the materials or call the estimable Bob Freeman, who still heads the state’s Committee on Open Government. I could get a quote or two from Freeman about the injustice of it all and then publish a story to that effect. Of course, I could also file a lawsuit against the municipality or school district, but that required time and resources my tiny newspaper company simply did not have.
When I started working as journalist in the Nutmeg state, I breathed a sigh of relief. Reporters and their publishers could file formal complaints to the FOIC and often they were granted hearings to air their grievances. The commission could file declaratory rulings, grant relief and, if necessary, refer matters to the courts for further review and possible action.
But, as you might expect, even in a state that respects freedom of information and open government, there are still parties that try mightily to avoid compliance or erect unreasonable barriers to the public’s right to know. Two examples caught my eye this month.
A Rocky Hill gadfly named Ed Peruta walked into his local state police barracks and asked to see all accident reports prepared by two state troopers. Police told Peruta he would have to pay a $16 “inspection fee” per report for the 400 or so he wanted to see. Mind you, all Peruta wanted to do was review the documents, not have them photocopied or scanned. Just for the privilege of eyeballing the reports, Peruta was told he’d have to pony up $6,352.
After Peruta filed a complaint, the FOIC rode to the rescue. Last week, a hearing officer for the commission released a draft decision, which the FOIC will rule on at its Aug. 10 meeting, that acknowledged the police have the statutory authority to charge a reasonable fee to cover clerical work associated with FOI requests. But the decision said the cops should make accident and investigative reports available for simple viewing to the public free-of-charge. Bravo. Since there were no costs associated with Peruta’s request, the inspection fee was nothing but an expensive roadblock designed to dissuade the curious from taking a peek at how the state police do business.
Of course, for every step forward it seems like we take another one back. A recent state Supreme Court decision overruled the FOIC and affirmed a statutory exemption to FOI laws regarding the disclosure of home addresses on municipal documents of certain state employees. The reason for the exemption, as the court and the General Assembly saw it, is that the availability of those addresses might subject employees such as police and corrections officials to harassment or danger. According to the Connecticut Law Tribune, another bill pending in the General Assembly is more explicit. It would, “without exception, make it illegal to release home addresses of anyone in the 12 public employee groups.” Fair enough, you might say?
Well, according to the Law Tribune, over the years the roster of the “protected classes” of state employees has swollen from two (police and prison guards) to a dozen:
“The list now includes every Judicial Branch employee, federal and state judges, all employees of the Department of Children and Families, and employees of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction services who provide direct patient care. The exempted addresses also include any lawyer who has been a public defender, or a social worker in those offices.”
Dan Klau, president of the Connecticut Foundation For Open Government, told me that the state’s FOI laws “always start out strong but every year folks chisel away at them. In this case, the exceptions simply expanded.”
To make matters even worse, these state workers are not required to ask that their addresses be removed from these documents. Municipal officials are presumed to magically know which records to redact.
So let me get this straight: the protected classes expand exponentially and their ranks are not expected to take any initiative to protect themselves? The General Assembly simply passes laws with enormous practical consequences for cities and towns and says, “Ok, now you protect them?” And in their spare time, town clerks and assessors are supposed to peruse thousands of documents and track property owners down to determine where they work — all without compensation from the state? This is the unfunded mandate from hell.
“Depending on the number of exceptions, it could be a nightmare,” Barbara Bigos, the assessor for my hometown of Salisbury, told me in a phone conversation this week. “It could affect every office in town hall and require lots of extra hours. It would be impossible to guess every property owner’s occupation.”
Then there is the matter of hiding the addresses during public proceedings. How, Claude Albert of the Connecticut Counsel on Freedom of Information asked the Law Tribune, could an applicant from one of the protected classes make his case for a property improvement before a planning and zoning commission without disclosing the address of his home?
Bigos said it’s relatively easy to own property without disclosing your true identity on town records. At minimal expense, any property owner can form a limited liability corporation (LLC) and list the name of the corporation as the owner. Or a property owner can designate a trustee or attorney who would be listed in the assessor’s records instead of the owner himself.
According to the Law Tribune, the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee “declined to vote the proposed bill out of committee this past session in light of the controversy and the then-pending Supreme Court decision.” State Sen. Gerald M. Fox III expects his panel to “seek solutions to satisfy both sides.”
Here’s a suggestion: craft a “solution” that puts the bulk of the responsibility for hiding addresses on the employees themselves. Then consider thinning the ranks of the protected classes. After all, what kind of risk is there in listing the home address of a custodian at DCF?
“Connecticut is truly a national leader in freedom-of-information law,” Klau said.
How true. But not if we allow that law to be unduly weakened by the enemies of openness.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.