Hugh McQuaid File Photo
Task force members Colleen Murphy and James Smith (Hugh McQuaid File Photo)

Recommendations drafted after months of contentious meetings by a task force on balancing privacy and public disclosure will get public hearings in two key legislative committees Monday. Both hearings are currently scheduled for 1 p.m.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee and the Government Administration and Elections Committee will hear public testimony on identical bills that would prevent the release of records, including 911 recordings, under the Freedom of Information Act, and place the burden of justifying the records’ release on the person requesting them.

The simultaneous scheduling of the two hearings prompted a statement Thursday from the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Both groups plan to testify in opposition to the bill and urged lawmakers to move one of the meetings.

Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of CDNA, said the bills deserve public hearings but said holding them at the same time ran counter to encouraging public access to government.

“However, the irony that two bills which ‘recommend’ how to balance privacy and the public’s right to know will be heard simultaneously in two separate committees doesn’t go missed on us. It’s my hope that the Co-Chairs will discuss this with one another and one of these committees will move one of these bills off Monday’s agendas to a later date and agenda.”

Jim Smith, president of CCFOI and a former member of the task force that essentially wrote the legislation, agreed.

“I simply don’t think two separate committees can expect to have the best hearings possible on such a vital topic if they’re doing it at the exact same time. How is this the most open they can be? It’s our hope they’ll see this as a simple error and move one of the dates for this particular issue,” he said.

Sen. Eric Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did not immediately return calls for comment.

The proposal applying to 911 recordings is one of several recommendations approved in December by a task force, created under a hastily-passed law intended to prevent the disclosure of crime scene photographs and certain audio recordings collected by police following the Sandy Hook shooting and other homicides. The law, approved on the last day of the 2013 legislative session, never received a public vetting.

However, that proposal did not restrict public access to recordings of 911 emergency calls. The recordings of calls made during the Sandy Hook incident became the subject of a court dispute last year, which ended with a Superior Court judge ordering their disclosure.

Although they would prevent the release of 911 recordings, the task force recommendations would allow a member of the public to listen to them at the police department keeping the records. The group’s report recommends making it a crime to copy the records without permission.

Some members of the task force, which was made up of of both open government and victim advocates, viewed this policy as a compromise but it is unclear how it will be received by the legislature. 

Senate President Donald Williams has said he believes adopting the recommendations would be a mistake.

“Certainly limiting the access to the 911 phone calls raises a red flag. I think that’s something that I believe the public expects to have access to and the news media expects to have access to. So I think that would be a mistake,” he said last month.

During the last-minute negotiations over the bill that created the task force, Williams told reporters he believed that the bill should not prevent the release of 911 recordings.

In February, Williams said Senate Democrats had not had a chance to discuss the issue as a group but hoped lawmakers in both chambers would tread lightly on the issue. He said it remained to be seen whether the legislature would take some action based on the task force recommendations this year.

“I think we should proceed with caution when it comes to limiting access to information when it comes to our criminal justice system,” he said.

However, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said lawmakers should continue to grapple with the issue this year.

“Fundamentally, we have to come up with a balance between transparency and the public’s right to know and the rights I believe victims should expect and the rights to privacy their families should be able to expect,” he said.

Sharkey said he believed the task force had managed to strike the appropriate balance between government transparency and victim privacy when it drafted the recommendations.

“No one would ever be deprived of the right to hear the audio,” Sharkey said. “. . . I think that’s a pretty reasonable compromise that would maintain public access to information but would prevent potentially emotional and painful communications from being broadcast without any restrictions.”