Proposals to change the Freedom of Information Act are on the legislative table again this year in addition to the recommendations of the recently-concluded task force on privacy and public disclosure.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, AFT Connecticut, and individual lawmakers have proposed bills to the Government Administration and Elections Committee to carve out new exemptions to the state’s public records law.
The suggestions come less than a year after lawmakers voted on the last day of the 2013 legislative session to prevent the disclosure of crime scene photographs and certain audio recordings collected by police following the Sandy Hook shooting and other homicides. That law also set in motion a task force which has since drafted its own proposals for changing the FOIA.
Aside from those recommendations, most of the bills seeking changes to public disclosure requirements are not related to the Newtown incident.
For instance, CCM, the states largest municipal lobby, wants to establish an “executive privilege status” for local officials in an effort to protect the confidentiality of conversations between mayors or first selectmen and their key advisers.
Although there are executive privilege exemptions for the president and governors in some other states, it is not a concept that is present in Connecticut’s FOI law, according to Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission.
CCM also is seeking to change an existing FOI exemption that currently prevents someone who is suing a town from requesting records of the town’s strategy or negotiations with respect to that pending lawsuit. The group would like the exemption to also prevent someone from using the FOIA to obtain town records rather than seeking them through discovery.
“Plaintiffs often use the FOIA to circumvent limitations on discovery in civil cases which apply to all other litigants or to increase municipal defense costs as a bargaining chip,” the group’s 2014 legislative priorities read.
Mike Muszynski, a senior legislative associate for CCM, said the group wants lawmakers to make a distinction between traditional Freedom of Information requests and those made by people suing a municipality.
That would be a policy shift in Connecticut, where Murphy said courts have considered discovery and the FOIA to be two distinct avenues for seeking information.
“They are two separate tracks. Just because you’re involved in litigation doesn’t mean you can’t make an FOI request,” she said.
AFT Connecticut, a union representing teachers and certain groups of state employees, has asked lawmakers to add an exemption for probation officers, shielding their personnel and medical records from anyone currently under their supervision.
Meanwhile, Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, has proposed a bill to prohibit the disclosure of 911 emergency calls related to homicides.
Last year saw a protracted court battle over the release of the 911 calls made during the Sandy Hook incident between the Associated Press and State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who sought to prevent their release. A judge eventually sided with the AP and the calls were released nearly a year after the incident.
Hovey’s proposal has some overlap with the recommendations of the privacy and public disclosure task force. That group has proposed including the calls in a new group of public records they want to establish. Members of the public would be permitted to inspect these documents but not copy them without first justifying it and receiving permission.
Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the panel has not yet screened legislation for the year. Some of the FOI proposals may not make the cut to be raised as bills during this session.
Musto was one of only four state lawmakers to cast votes against last year’s legislation carving out new FOI exemptions to prevent the disclosure of some crime scene records. The hastily-drafted legislation was passed in a late-night vote with relatives of several Sandy Hook victims present in both the House and Senate chambers. The bill never got a public hearing.
Last week, Musto said he was not familiar with all of the new proposals impacting public disclosure but would be looking at them with some skepticism.
“I’m not in favor of restricting public access to public records,” he said Thursday. “There would have to be a pretty compelling argument that an exemption would do a significantly greater amount of good than harm.”
The committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Ed Jutila also said he was beginning the session with a “bias” against adding new exemptions.
However, Sen. Ed Meyer, one of the committee’s vice-chairman who also opposed last year’s bill, said he believes the legislature in general has been too willing to weaken the state’s public disclosure law.
“The desire of a majority of legislators to conceal the horrible things that happened at Sandy Hook indicates that this is a legislature that favors privacy at any cost. I think we pay a price for that,” Meyer said.
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information also has suggested several proposals to reduce restrictions in the law. James Smith, the group’s president, said one of his top priorities is to push for a law, proposed by the state librarian, to allow access to medical and personal records of historic value.
The bill would create time limits for such documents to be sealed and is based on difficulties encountered by two Connecticut researchers who have been unable to access documents pertinent to their work.
Smith said his group also is looking for bills to prohibit the legislature from changing the FOIA without a public hearing and increasing public access to the University of Connecticut Foundation, a private foundation that raises money for the public university after which it is named.