Public Records Not Always As Open As They Should Be
By GAIL BRACCIDIFERRO MACDONALD
February 21, 2012
Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act has ensured public access to government records for 35 years, but the likelihood a citizen will actually secure such records in an efficient and timely manner continues to vary widely.
This became apparent when, for a second year, students in a public affairs journalism class I teach at the University of Connecticut tested freedom of information, know as FOI, compliance. The students randomly chose government offices to visit and, once there, requested the job title and salary of the highest paid employee, which is information clearly available to the public under law. Although officials in some towns provided the information in a quick and professional manner, others, as happened last year, did not perform in the public's best interest.
In Mansfield, the home of UConn's Storrs campus, officials once again cheerfully turned over requested information without questions or delay. In Greenwich, one student's hometown, officials guided the student through specific Web links to secure the information fairly quickly.
In Windham, one student got the information she sought at town hall with little fanfare. A second student, however, who first called and then visited the police department, was told the information couldn't be located.
Another student had a similar experience at the East Hartford Police Department. He was directed to town hall, as well as instructed to search online. At the town clerk's office, he was handed voluminous budget books to slog through, then told to search the municipal website. After the student told them his online search was unsuccessful, the officials tried it themselves and were surprised their search also failed to turn up the information.
My students encountered more disheartening news regarding public access to public information while visiting town hall in Tolland. They were told that citizens who request copies of public documents in that town are routinely charged $1 per page — a rate double what is allowed under the state FOI law. The students questioned the legality of this fee and were told the charge resulted from lean budgets and that hiking the price to increase income was a typical practice among municipal officials in the state. FOI Commission Public Education Officer Thomas A. Hennick later confirmed the students' suspicions that routinely charging a dollar a page for copies violates the law.
With a class of seven students conducting the experiment this year, the results are admittedly less than comprehensive. Their mixed results, however, are consistent with what the previous group of 13 students discovered and also jibes with two recent FOI decisions in which reporters from the Journal Inquirer and The Day newspapers, who were seeking information in Vernon and Stonington, successfully appealed denials of access to public records.
In January, the FOI Commission ruled that the town of Vernon violated the law when former Mayor Jason L. McCoy sought to charge the Journal Inquirer newspaper $950 for copies of public emails it had requested. The fee was to be paid to McCoy's law firm, which the town contended would execute the email retrieval as a private contractor.
In Stonington, the town in recent months has twice denied a reporter from The Day access to requested documents. Not long after the FOI Commission ordered release of one set of documents relating to the threatening actions of a town employee, the town argued — inappropriately according to an FOI lawyer — that release of a union grievance filed by another employee would violate that worker's privacy.
This action prompted FOI attorney Victor R. Perpetua in January to recommend "in the strongest possible terms" FOI training for one of the town's attorneys.
Given the mixed compliance with the FOI law among officials in many towns, Perpetua's advice should be applied to town officials in municipalities throughout the state — unless Connecticut wants to regress to the era when a good deal of the public's business was conducted behind closed doors.
Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald is an assistant professor in residence in the Journalism Department at the University of Connecticut. Reporting for this piece was done by students Gayla Cawley, Allison Hayes, James Polvere, Nicholas Rondinone, Amy Schellenbaum, Eric Vo and Brian Zahn.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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