Lawmakers advanced five bills Friday out of committee revising the state’s Freedom of Information Act, including one that seeks to improve enforcement by increasing the maximum fine allowed for denial of public records requests from $1,000 to $10,000.
In addition to increasing the fine for a state agency or, in rare cases, the individual decision maker who shows a willful disregard for the law, Senate Bill 1221 would also provide the Freedom of Information Commission with new injunctive authority to more quickly enforce access to public records. The revisions also require public agencies to compile and maintain a list of unfulfilled public records requests on their websites, including the number of requests outstanding, the date each was received, the date of any agency response, and the total number of requests fulfilled during the prior month.
The bill received bipartisan support within the committee, including from Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott who serves as ranking member. Sampson asked committee co-chair Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, whether the increased fines in SB 1221 would be applied to the agency or the commissioner if they made the final determination.
Blumenthal replied in the affirmative, earning Sampson’s support.
“Levying fines against agencies is a somewhat pointless activity,” Sampson said. “You’re effectively asking for tax dollars from one agency to give to another state agency. It’s all tax money. I don’t know that anyone feels any real significant penalty when that happens.
“The fact that this can be applied to an individual I think is a positive thing, and considering that the decision maker in a state agency is going to be probably a very well-paid commissioner, a $1,000 penalty is probably not as much of an issue as a $10,000 penalty. I’m actually starting to like this bill even more and more,” Sampson said. “Please understand that this only gets applied in the most very serious circumstances. The language that’s in the bill says this: ‘It has to reach the level of an act or reckless, willful or wanton misconduct with regard to the delay or denial of responses to requests for public records under FOIA’.”
Sampson voted in favor. Only two “no” votes were registered against the bill.
Blumenthal said there was testimony suggesting that the $1,000 maximum fine was inconsequential and supporters of the bill were concerned that it was just being considered part of the cost of doing business for some state agencies.
Exemptions and a Smartphone Clarification
The General Administration and Elections Committee also voted out Senate bills 1153 and 1157, and House Bill 6912, each of which would specify new exemptions for specific public records.
- SB 1153 would make exempt records containing proprietary information related to ongoing research at the state’s universities.
- SB 1157 would exempt from disclosure the home addresses of public employees with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Attorney General’s office, the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, and certain other mass data requests.
- HB 6912 would provide the opportunity for election workers to request that their home addresses and other information remain exempt, while also increasing the penalties for harassing election workers.
Regarding SB 1157, Blumenthal said, “These employees all have jobs where their interactions with the public could be adversarial, and police departments have received reports of threats against these employees in the past.”
The exemption bills appeared to pass along party lines, through the votes were held open late Friday for members who were serving on other committees during the afternoon.
Sampson suggested that the FOIA already provided appropriate protection for university research, and Ranking Member Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Southington, suggested during discussion of each bill that she has seen too much legislation designed to exempt more information from the FOIA.
Senate Bill 1155 seeks to update the law to include hand-held devices such as smartphones among those that the public can use to scan public documents rather than purchasing paper copies.