F.O.I. back on the WEB!  Stamford Boards and Commissions still don't get itE-MAIL, Voicemail Proposed Declaratory Ruling...NOW ALL WATCHDOGS MERGED IN 2011




Story in full:
Use of social media in police protection and law enforcement http://www.unionleader.com/article/20141023/NEWS03/141029514






Judge: Greenwich officials' meeting was illegal
Greenwich TIME

By Justin Pottle
Published 8:14 pm, Friday, October 31, 2014  

A judge has upheld the state Freedom of Information Commission's ruling that a closed-door meeting Greenwich officials held to discuss ground contamination was illegal.

The judge on Thursday dismissed the town's appeal of that ruling -- rejecting its argument that members of three boards were legally justified meeting in private because they were discussing a legal claim. He upheld the FOI Commission's finding that officials instead discussed and reached consensus on how best to clean up contaminated soil at Greenwich High School -- before remediation options were presented to the public...story in full:   http://www.greenwichtime.com/local/article/Judge-Greenwich-officials-meeting-was-illegal-5862253.php



FOI Advocate: Malloy Administration Should Push Charter Group On Public Disclosure

FUSE, Jumoke Academy, Lately Have Been Consulting Lawyer Who Is Malloy Pal And Democratic Fundraiser
Hartford  Courant
Jon Lender, Government Watch
9:53 PM EDT, July 12, 2014

The president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information is blasting an embattled Hartford charter school group for refusing to release information to the public about its taxpayer-funded operations – adding that the Malloy administration should push the group harder to obey FOI laws.

Officials in the Malloy administration have said that they are not sure how the FOI laws apply to charter school organizations and that they need to study the issue further. But Jim Smith, head of the nonprofit group that advocates for laws protecting the public's right to know, is unequivocal in his belief that the laws do apply.

"Charter schools are certainly one solution of the problems in education in Connecticut and in America. There are things in education that are properly private, like academic records," Smith said. "But if the charter schools [receive]... public moneys, then charter school officials who refuse to divulge information are breaking the Freedom of Information law."

Smith was referring, in an interview Friday, to the charter management group FUSE, as well as the Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford that FUSE managed.

Both organizations have failed to provide information requested by The Courant during recent weeks of turmoil including the resignation of FUSE's CEO, Michael Sharpe, after it was disclosed that he served time in federal prison and falsely claimed to have a doctorate. The state has provided $53 million to the charter operation since the 1997 founding of Jumoke, and the formation of FUSE as its management unit in more recent years.

The Courant's requests for information from Jumoke and FUSE would typically have been complied with by a normal superintendent of schools' office in a town or a city under the section of state statutes known as the Freedom of Information Act.

For example, if a superintendent of schools resigned after it was revealed that he faked his doctorate, his office would be required under law to disclose his salary and other information such as whether he would receive a pension, and in what amount.

But when The Courant sought that same information from FUSE about Sharpe, for example, the organization refused to answer, saying it is not covered by the FOI Act because it is a private, non-profit group. State law says that charter schools are, in effect, public agencies and must provide information upon request under the FOI Act.

State law isn't as specific with regard to charter school management groups such as FUSE, but the co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, Andrew Fleischmann, said court decisions make it clear that FUSE should be providing information to the public under current laws. Just to make sure that is clear, his co-chair on the committee says the legislature should close all loopholes next year because of what FUSE has been doing..

Smith, the FOI council president, on Friday said he agreed. "There is enough case law, with enough specificity as to what is public and what is private in education, that these guys simply are ignoring legitimate questions that the public has the right to know about," he said.

FUSE in recent days has reiterated its opposition to disclosing the information requested. Its acting co-CEO, Heidi Hamilton, a lawyer, wrote The Courant Thursday and said that "we are not a public agency. Moreover, the records you have requested are not public records or files…Lastly, we have been advised by counsel that we are under no duty to respond to your request."

In an interview during the week, Hamilton said The Courant's contention that the information is public is "really not relevant to me… I have to concentrate on running a business."

Jumoke, for its part, has not claimed immunity from the FOI as FUSE has, but it still has yet to comply with any FOI requests from the Courant – such as a list of employees and information about a murky lease arrangement with Sharpe, who's been living in a second-floor apartment in a Jumoke-owned building on Asylum Avenue in Hartford. Jumoke also refuses comment on any rental arrangement there might be for a woman who lives on the third floor of the building.

When taxpayers are footing the bill, even a non-profit organization must account to the public for its operations, Smith said.

"If there are legitimate questions about the operations of charter schools… and they have received…millions of tax dollars, then the governor has to ensure that these questions are answered publicly," Smith said. He added that statements insisting on the charter schools' compliance with FOI laws should be made by both Malloy and his appointed education commissioner, Stefan Pryor. Pryor comes from a charter school background; he co-founded Amistad Academy, a charter school in New Haven, and served on the board of the Achievement First network of schools that includes Amistad.

"Why wouldn't they want this information available to the public? They should insist on it publicly. The governor should tell these charter schools to release the information," Smith said, adding that Pryor should, too.

Pryor said this past week that his department has embarked on a "comprehensive analysis" of its oversight of charter schools – including the question of their obligations under the FOI Act.

When asked recently whether Pryor thinks charter school groups should have the same obligations as regular public schools under the FOI Act, education department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said: "Transparency is a vital component of public accountability. During the course of our review of laws and policies related to charter schools, we will examine this question further so that all organizations are adhering to the highest standards."

On Friday, Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba, said, when asked about Smith's comments: "The administration supports the [education] department's review of charter schools, including their review of additional transparency measures."

He did not respond Smith's statement that there may be some significance to the fact that a politically connected lawyer and friend of Malloy's has entered the picture: James A. Wade of the prominent firm Robinson+Cole in Hartford. Both Jumoke and FUSE have begun consulting Wade. Hamilton cc'd Wade on her FOI response Thursday, and members of Jumoke's governing board mentioned at a Thursday evening meeting that they had been seeking Wade's advice (on matters they didn't disclose).

Wade is a major fundraiser for Democrats, and Malloy has repeatedly served as the speaker and main draw at fundraising events staged by Wade's political action committee, called Prosperity For Connecticut. One of those fundraisers in 2013 was hosted by a major figure in the Connecticut charter school movement, Greenwich businessman Jonathan Sackler. Sackler's family members, and the company where he is a director, have accounted for about $200,000 in donations in 2013 and 2014 to state and federal Democratic committees that can help Malloy's November re-election campaign.

Smith said it's "an utterly fair question" to ask whether Wade's involvement could affect the Malloy administration's handling of the charter schools issue. "Why else would they hire Jim Wade? These guys [FUSE and Jumoke] obviously have some savvy," Smith said. "It's almost like cronyism."

Wade did not return a Courant phone message Friday.

Jumoke announced late Friday that it is severing ties with FUSE and would now operate its three charter schools in Hartford without the management group. FUSE still has an agreement to operate a charter school in Louisiana. Details of how the new arrangement would work were not released.

Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant




How the CT Legislature works:  Or the literary alternative...or back again?
  Or the Legislature supported by the State Supreme Court?
FOI Task Force Bill Swings Back Towards Openness
CTNEWSJUNKIE
by Hugh McQuaid | Mar 24, 2014 6:30pm

The Government Administration and Elections Committee stripped restrictions on public access to 911 recordings from a bill before voting on the controversial proposal Monday.

The committee leaned heavily in favor of public access when it adopted new language on a bill that sought to find compromise between open government and crime victims’ privacy.

The bill had been written to create a special class of public records, which the public could inspect but not copy. The language placed the burden of releasing those records on the person requesting the documents. A task force that proposed the recommendations in the bill called for recordings of 911 emergency calls and pictures depicting the bodies of homicide victims be included in this class of records.

Lawmakers removed language regarding 911 recordings from the bill, meaning the public will retain access to them. They preserved the look-but-don’t-copy policy for pictures depicting homicide victims but flipped the burden of proof so it falls on the government to explain why they should not be released.

Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the bill was changed in the interest of finding a compromise between the task force recommendations and Freedom of Information advocates who want the legislature to re-think changes lawmakers made to Connecticut’s public disclosure policies last year.

“There are people who want to repeal what we did last year. There are people who don’t want to change anything. We’ve tried addressing these concerns in the new language of the bill by leaving the 911 recordings where we did last year,” he said. “I don’t know that either side is going to be completely happy with it.”

The amended bill is the latest iteration in a legislative process set in motion last year, when lawmakers acted on the final day of session, and without a public hearing, to create special exemptions in the state Freedom of Information Act to protect the privacy of the family members of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. That action created a task force to inform legislation during this year’s session.

The task force worked for months on a report that many on the panel called a compromise. However, open government advocates and Senate President Donald Williams have opposed it saying it will reduce transparency in the criminal justice system. At a hearing earlier this month, Williams called the bill “counterproductive” and “destructive.”

But in the form adopted Monday, advocates of victim privacy feel the legislation has swung too far in the other direction.

“Based on this substitute language, I’d rather they just spike this completely because this doesn’t give us anything,” State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose said outside the committee meeting.

Access to photos depicting homicide victims has been completely barred under the law passed last year. Ambrose, who served on the task force, said the group’s privacy advocates allowed them to be inspected as part of a compromise that also involved including 911 tapes in the same class of records.

“The compromise is gone completely. If we knew that compromise was going to be gone, there’s no way that I ever would have voted on putting the photos back in. I would have just said ‘We have a stalemate’... and just keep everything as it is currently,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate and possibly to the Judiciary Committee, which has its own similar bill.

FEB. 23, 2014 OP-ED FROM CTNEWSJUNKIE HERE
Task Force Wants Copying Certain Records To Be A Crime
CTNEWSJUNKIE
by Hugh McQuaid | Jan 24, 2014 5:13pm

An early draft of a report from a task force weighing privacy against public disclosure would have recommended making it a felony to copy certain law enforcement records without permission.

That language was softened by the time the panel approved its final report during Friday’s meeting. The report reaffirms recommendations approved by the group last month that would change the way the public accesses some law enforcement records.

The policies endorsed by a majority of the task force would permit a member of the public to view certain law enforcement records pertaining to homicides, but would place the burden of justifying the public release of those documents on the member of the public. Previously, government agencies had the burden of explaining why they did not want to release a record.

The new standard would apply to photographs and videos depicting homicide victims as well as recordings of 911 calls and other police communications describing their bodies. The group also approved a recommendation that the legislature passes a law making it a crime to copy these records without permission.

But according to Colleen Murphy, director of the Freedom of Information Commission, an early draft of the report included language that would have made that crime a Class D felony. Murphy said the group never approved such language and it was removed from subsequent drafts of the report. But Murphy and FOI advocate Jim Smith reacted to the provision in a section of the report’s appendix dedicated to statements from members of the group.

In her statement, Murphy pointed out that a Class D felony charge is “equivalent to strangulation, promoting prostitution and robbery, among other crimes, punishable by up to five years in prison.”

On the other hand, if public officials refuse to comply with an order from the Freedom of Information Commission, they are only subject to a Class B misdemeanor charge, Murphy wrote.

In his statement, Smith, a former newspaper editor and current president of the Council for Freedom of Information, called the felony provision “lunacy” and an “outrageous step — a first for FOI laws.”

“The FOI statutes could use tougher fines against those officials who violate the law. Perhaps we should change the law to include felony convictions and prison sentences for officials who break FOI law by refusing to release public information,” he said.

The final report only recommends that the legislature make taking or copying the records without permission “a crime” and does not recommend a specific classification. During Friday’s meeting, Murphy and Smith contested whether the task force voted on that provision during its hectic December meeting. Both said they did not recall even discussing the issue.

However, most of the the task force disagreed and put the question to rest Friday by rejecting an amendment by Murphy and Smith which would have removed that and several other provisions they said the group never voted on.

Ultimately, the task force approved the report in a 15-2 vote, with Smith and Murphy opposing the document. Susan Storey, the state’s chief public defender, voted in favor of approving the report but indicated that if legislation is drafted based on its recommendations she would oppose the bill.

“I think the report is an accurate reflection of what happened in this room, but it is not my intention to support the recommendations,” she said. “. . . I think that curtailing the free flow of information is injurious to the justice system.”

Don DeCesare, one of the panel’s two chairman and the manager of two radio stations, said the report would not have been what he recommended personally, but represents compromise.

“I think we did in fact achieve the balance we were asked to find and my guess is that if each of the 17 of us were asked to write this, it wouldn’t have come out exactly as it did. That’s probably a good notion that indeed, it’s pretty much right,” he said.


Conn. town officials call cops to remove reporters
DAY
Jan 17, 7:33 AM EST

BETHLEHEM, Conn. (AP) --

Two newspaper reporters say officials in a Connecticut town called state police to have them removed from a town hall after refusing a public records request.


Register Citizen reporters Isaac Avilucea and Gayla Cawley say officials asked them to leave Bethlehem Town Hall on Thursday. State police showed up and took statements, but didn't arrest anyone.

The Register Citizen reports ( http://bit.ly/1i53zjk ) that town officials refused to immediately respond to the reporters' request under state law for information about the Public Works Department and missing supplies. So the reporters decided to stay in Town Hall until someone responded to the request.

Bethlehem First Selectman Lenny Assard says he didn't think officials were required to immediately produce the documents and asked the reporters to put the request in writing, which they did.

---

Information from: The Register Citizen, http://www.registercitizen.com


© 2014 The Associated Press.
Judge Orders Release of 911 Tapes
CTNEWSJUNKIE
by Hugh McQuaid | Nov 26, 2013 4:04pm

Recordings of the 911 calls made during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting will be released by Dec. 4 under a Tuesday decision by a Superior Court judge in New Britain.  Judge Eliot Prescott issued the decision Tuesday, denying a request by State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky to prevent their release. Sedensky had asked the court to issue a stay while he appealed a decision by the Freedom of Information Commission, which had ruled in favor of the Associated Press, which had asked Newtown police to provide copies of the recordings.

The judge gave Sedensky until Dec. 4 to appeal the ruling. Sedensky is reviewing the decision and will determine his next course of action by that date, according to a statement from the state Division of Criminal Justice.

Earlier this month, Prescott concluded he could not rule on the case until he had listened to the recordings. The tapes were made available to the court on Monday as sealed evidence.  After reviewing the recordings, Prescott said they did not meet the requirements for exemptions that would prevent their disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act. ..full report here.

DECISION IN FULL
http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/upload/2013/Documents2013/sedensky.pdf

FOI commission orders release of Newtown 911 tapes
Prosecutor to appeal decision in court

DAY
By MICHAEL MELIA Associated Press
Article published Sep 26, 2013

Hartford - The state's Freedom of Information Commission on Wednesday ordered the release of the 911 tapes from last year's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, ruling in favor of an appeal by The Associated Press for access to records withheld by investigators.

The recordings will not be made available immediately. The prosecutor leading the investigation of the Dec. 14 massacre, Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, said the commission's decision will be appealed in Connecticut's courts.

The recordings could shed light on the law enforcement response to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. Twenty-six people, including 20 first-graders, were killed inside the school on Dec. 14 by the gunman, Adam Lanza, who committed suicide as police arrived.

Sedensky argued that the calls should be exempt from public information laws because they contain information that could be used in a law enforcement action. But the chairman of the commission, Owen Eagan, said Sedensky did not make clear in his previous testimony how the information might be used or how its release could damage an investigation in which no arrests are anticipated.

"You never even reviewed the tapes," Eagan said, reminding Sedensky of his testimony from June.

Sedensky has raised other arguments against releasing the tapes, saying they could subject witnesses to harassment from conspiracy theorists and violate survivors from the school who deserve special protection as victims of child abuse.

"This is a case about crime victims and witnesses who shouldn't have to worry that their calls for help in their most vulnerable moments will become fodder for the evening news," he said at the start of Wednesday's hearing.

On the day of the shooting, the AP requested documents, including copies of 911 calls, as it does routinely in news gathering, in part to examine the police response to the massacre that sent officers from multiple agencies racing to the school. If the recordings are released, the AP would review the content and determine what, if any, of it would meet the news cooperative's standards for publication.

The town's police department denied the AP's request, citing legal exemptions that allow the government to withhold documents if they're being used for an ongoing investigation and should remain secret. The AP appealed to the FOI commission.

In testimony before FOI hearing officer Kathleen Ross on June 3, Newtown's police chief said a search for the records was not conducted until three days before his appearance at the FOI commission hearing. Although 911 calls are typically released, Sedensky directed Newtown police not to turn over the recordings while the inquiry was underway.

In a response earlier this month to a hearing officer who recommended the recordings be released, Sedensky said criminals could benefit by the release of material that could later become relevant to the investigation.

"Under the ruling in the proposed decision, the investigators and the state's attorney would be at the mercy of a criminal seeking to find out what law enforcement knows before law enforcement knows the significance of an individual piece of evidence," he wrote.

A Connecticut law passed earlier this year in response to the massacre creates exemptions to the freedom-of-information law for the release of photographs, film, video and other images depicting a homicide victim if those records constitute "an unwarranted invasion" on the privacy of the surviving family members. It also created a one-year moratorium on the release of certain portions of audiotape and other recordings - with the exception of 911 tapes - in which the condition of a homicide victim is described.

More on this...from CTNEWSJUNKIE
Bill Drafted In Secret Would Block Release Of Some Newtown Massacre Records
The Hartford Courant
By JON LENDER, EDMUND H. MAHONY and DAVE ALTIMARI, jlender@courant.com
10:18 PM EDT, May 21, 2013

The staffs of the state's top prosecutor and the governor's office have been working in secret with General Assembly leaders on legislation to withhold records related to the police investigation into the Dec. 14 Newtown elementary school massacre — including victims' photos, tapes of 911 calls, and possibly more.


The behind-the-scenes legislative effort came to light Tuesday when The Courant obtained a copy of an email by a top assistant to Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, Timothy J. Sugrue. Sugrue, an assistant state's attorney, discussed options considered so far, including blocking release of statements "made by a minor."

"There is complete agreement regarding photos etc., and audio tapes, although the act may allow the disclosure of audio transcripts," Sugrue wrote to Kane, two other Kane subordinates and to Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who is directing the investigation of the killings.

The bill that's being crafted has not been handled under routine legislative procedures — it hasn't gone through the committee process, which includes a public hearing, for example. Sugrue's email Tuesday indicated that a draft of the bill was being worked on by leaders in both the House and Senate, and might be ready as soon as the end of the day.

He wrote: "I just received a call from Natalie Wagner" — a member of the legal counsel's staff in the office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

"She believes that draft language will be forthcoming today (the work of both houses) in the form of a special act. ..." Sugrue wrote that Wagner "will send me the draft in confidence when she receives it, and I will immediately forward it."

However, late Tuesday, the legislation proposed by Kane wasn't ready to be acted on in either legislative chamber, said Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba. He said he did not know when that might happen.

"A lot of people, including our office, have heard the concerns expressed by the families of Newtown victims, and are exploring ways to respect the families' right to privacy while also respecting the public's right to information," gubernatorial chief of staff Mark Ojakian said in a statement released by Doba.

A major question yet to be settled is whether the legislation would apply only to the Newtown case, or to documents from other criminal cases that are now subject to public disclosure. A report on the police investigation into the Newtown shooting is expected to be released in June.

As envisioned by Kane, the bill wouldn't be limited to the Newtown file.

"We are seeking legislation to protect crime scene photographs protecting victims and certain 911 tapes," Kane told The Courant Tuesday. "It is something that I have been concerned about for years and years and the situation in Newtown brings it to a head. I don't want family members seeing pictures of their loved ones publicized in a manner in which these are subject to be published."

He said as he sees the legislation, it would apply to "basically crime scene photographs depicting injuries to victims and recordings, 911 recordings displaying the mental anguish of victims. Things like that, of that category. And it seems to me that the intrusion of the privacy of the individuals outweighs any public interest in seeing these."

Sugrue said in his email that the "forthcoming" language would be "in the form of a special act, not an amendment to the [state's Freedom of Information Act]."

As originally discussed behind the scenes, the proposed legislation would have amended the state's freedom of information law by adding a blanket exemption to disclosure of any "criminal investigation photograph, film, videotape, other image or recording or report depicting or describing the victim or victims."

Colleen Murphy, the director of the state's FOI Commission, said Tuesday that her staff had argued against the idea of such a blanket change. She said a couple of weeks ago the office of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey provided her agency with a draft including the blanket exception. She said she was advised that this draft would not be put to a vote, but she knew nothing abut the contents of the "forthcoming" draft.

Murphy said she'd urged that lawmakers be "thoughtful and careful about any legislation" and to "not be reactive to one situation" by making changes that could have long-term, unintended effects.

Murphy was unaware of Sugrue's email when The Courant told her about it late Tuesday afternoon. She said she and her staff had not been receiving detailed updates. Asked if she would have liked to have been kept aware of developments such as Sugrue's email, she said yes.

The killing of 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown has sparked a number of legislative proposals this year to protect the privacy of the victims' families and spare them further pain. One example is a bill that would exempt the death certificates of minors from public disclosure for six months.

On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home then drove to the school, where he used a semiautomatic rifle in the massacre. He then killed himself. Most investigative records have yet to be released concerning Lanza, including any psychological reports.

If the proposed legislation ends up blocking the release of victims' photos and tapes of 911 calls — on which Sugrue said "there is complete agreement" — it wouldn't be a significant departure from normal procedures with regard to photos, but would be a major departure with regard to tapes of emergency calls.

As a matter of long practice, Connecticut police departments do not release grisly photos of victims. These only emerge in public when placed in evidence during criminal trials, and when they do they generally are not published in newspapers or on television.

"Our concern is the media and the Internet and all the bloggers," Kane said. "If this stuff is FOI-able. ... You've seen these pictures, which are sometimes introduced as exhibits in court  at a trial. The print media certainly doesn't print those. And normally the TV doesn't. But this case rose to a whole different level.  Subject to FOI, any member of the public can get them."

Audio tapes of 911 tapes, on the other hand, are routinely released by police under FOI laws in Connecticut and across the country. Law enforcement officials have refused to release the 911 call tapes in the Newtown case so far. Those tapes were released after other recent major crimes, including the 2010 Hartford Distributors shootings in Manchester.

The release of such tapes are often used by the news media or lawyers to evaluate the police response to emergencies.

Sugrue's email on Tuesday discussed, in vague terms, potential "consent" provisions under which victims' family members apparently would have say over what information might be withheld or released. He mentioned a proposal to "allow the written consent of one immediate next of kin" – to accommodate one parent's "desire to obtain records that relate to her son." But, he added, that might be unfair to "the other families if one member thereof gives the consent."

Also unclear Tuesday was the question of which government officials would decide whether to release or withhold information under the bill.

Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant




OP-ED | News on the FOI Front Looks Bleak

CTNEWSJUNKIE
by Terry D. Cowgill | May 17, 2013 5:30am

For gadflies, watchdogs, and journalists in the Nutmeg State, the outlook for open access to government information just gets grimmer by the month. With few exceptions, lawmakers and other state officials are trying their best to make it harder for us to take a look at what they’re up to.

The reasons for the desire for more secrecy vary, but they range from a genuine desire for less transparency, to saving money, to pure emotion in the wake of a tragedy. But almost all these measures have one thing in common: they’re bad ideas whose implementation would protect the well connected at the expense of the people.

A report last week by The Courant’s Jon Lender reveals a disturbing pattern. Various pieces of legislation are pending in the General Assembly that would withhold the home addresses of certain state employees, bar access to records of those seeking pardons, and force taxpayers to pay a fee simply for the privilege of viewing a police report.

One of the most troubling is a bill sponsored by Newtown Republican state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, who proposed a one-paragraph bill that would restrict public access to the death certificates of minors until six months after the death. Why? Because Bolinsky got a call from the town clerk, who felt uncomfortable sharing death certificates with reporters only three days after 20 children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As should be obvious to everyone, perhaps the worst time to change the law is when emotions get the best of our public officials. Harken back to two years ago when then-Sen. Edith Prague, a principled and longtime opponent of the death penalty, changed her mind after meeting with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a violent and deadly home invasion in Cheshire four years ago.

If anything, the Newtown massacre was even more catastrophic than what happened in Cheshire. So the urge to proceed on emotion should be resisted more firmly. A couple of mass murders rightly stimulate discussion on gun control but they should not be cause for restricting public access to public records.

Now the State Police, always likely suspects in the battle over public information, have outdone themselves. They’ve asked lawmakers to approve a bill that would impose a $16 fee on anyone who wants access to a police report. No, that’s not a copying charge, which would be reasonable, but a fee for just looking at a report in a viewing room. We all know what the effect of that would be. Fewer citizens asking for police reports and, therefore, fewer people checking in to see what the police are up to.

The office of Gov. Dannel Malloy is proposing to put most of the staff of three autonomous watchdog agencies under a single entity supervised by the governor’s office. That means the state offices of Ethics, Elections Enforcement and Freedom of Information would effectively lose their independence and would be at much greater risk of politicization. Malloys says it would save $180,000. Fortunately, the General Assembly’s appropriations committee is balking, but probably for the wrong reasons. After all, the GA has its own FOI issues and what kind of legislature wants to give the executive branch more power?

Too often the impulse of those in charge seems to be to err on the side of less information rather than more, except when the release of that information benefits the powerful. Most people who work in law enforcement, for example, are reluctant to release information, even when it should be public. But when a cop breaks up a bank robbery or saves a life, the police department quickly issues a detailed press release extolling the virtues of the brave officer and his heroic actions.

And either out of ignorance or arrogance, municipal boards and commissions sometimes adjourn to executive session for the flimsiest of reasons. I once covered a Board of Finance meeting in Salisbury in which a board member — an attorney, no less — suggested going behind closed doors to discuss an agenda item because it involved “potential litigation.” Such a idea makes a mockery of freedom of information law and could be used as a pretense to move just about any item out of public view.

Fortunately, public information advocates are making a lot of noise. And state Comptroller Kevin Lembo is doing his part to promote openness in government. He’s proposed a bill to create a searchable online database of information on the controversial economic assistance the state gives businesses as incentives. So the news is only mostly bad.

But I think it’s safe to say that legislators and bureaucrats need an attitude adjustment. As FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy told Lender, too often their reaction to the release of information is to question why the public needs to know when they should be asking why not.


During the Long Session 2013, "watch dogs" were turning into potential "lap dogs" as their administrator went on record denying that he was responsible to the  various agencies...
Malloy picks leader at Connecticut accountability office
DAY
Associated Press
Article published Dec 31, 2013

Hartford (AP) — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has named a new executive administrator of Connecticut's Office of Government Accountability, a collection of nine regulatory offices, including the Office of State Ethics and Freedom of Information Commission.

Shelby J. Brown of East Hartford, currently the associate director of employee relations at the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, will take on the new job. She replaces David Guay, who was appointed in October by Malloy to serve as the executive director of the State Contracting Standards Board.

Malloy chose Brown from a list of approved candidates provided to him by the Governmental Accountability Commission. She was the panel's top candidate.

Brown is scheduled to begin her new job on Jan. 10 on an acting basis. Her appointment requires confirmation by the General Assembly.

OP-ED | Superagency Must Be Able To Maintain Independence
CTNEWSJUNKIE
by James H. Smith | Nov 27, 2012 10:52am

If you care about ethics in government, honest elections, or the right to know what your government is doing, then the mess at the Office of Governmental Accountability should be cause for alarm. At best, they’re wrestling with an octopus. At worst, the essential independence of our state watchdog agencies will be crippled. It’s nearly laughable if it weren’t such a shame.

The governor and the legislature created this superagency in 2011 in the name of efficiency. The nine agencies include the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics, and the Freedom of Information Commission.

Gov. Dan Malloy chose David Guay to be the “executive administrator,” of the superagency. Mr. Guay, who prefers to be the boss rather than merely the administrator, is refusing to meet with the directors of the nine agencies that comprise the Government Accountability Commission, which has the power to fire him. He maintains the commission doesn’t have the power to evaluate his performance, and the governor’s chief counsel appears to back him up on that.

But rather than fire him at this time, the commission prefers to “identify areas that need improvement and resolve them.” He is commended in some areas for his work in the first year of this cobbled-together agency, but he is evaluated critically in key areas of management.

“It is of grave concern to the GAC that (Guay) is unwilling to meet to discuss the status of the consolidation or to collaborate on ways to make it a success as he enters his second year of employment,” states a draft of his evaluation.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

In the merger of the watchdog agencies, staff cuts at the FOIC have led to piled up cases and delays in getting hearings or taking appeals to the state courts. The people’s right to know is slowing to a crawl.

A year ago Mr. Guay, who makes $118,000 a year, tried to change the rules and proposed that he report directly to the governor, rather than to the Government Accountability Commission. “Giving the GAC the authority to evaluate and possibly terminate a governor’s appointee appears to be inconsistent with the appointment of other gubernatorial appointees,” he said at the time.

He also said to the commission that, “I’ll report to whoever I need to report to. I don’t fear an evaluation. In fact I welcome the evaluation. I think I will ace my evaluation, I will exceed their expectations.”

But now he refuses to even listen to his evaluation and has twice declined to attend a commission meeting where his evaluation was on the agenda. In fact, according to the draft of his evaluation, he doesn’t even like talking to the agency directors: “Regular communications by [Guay] with the division heads have not been established. It is unusual for him to visit any of the division offices or to meet with the division heads one-on-one. This failure on the part of [Guay] to engage in two-way communication regularly is a primary concern.”

The ethics, elections and FOI agencies were created independent for a reason. If you are controlled by the chief executive of the state, how can you hold him or her accountable? Mr. Guay doesn’t seem to grasp that his selfish efforts to try to report directly to the governor puts the OGA agencies under the governor’s thumb, no matter who is governor. It’s the proverbial fox in the henhouse.

Malloy’s chief legal counsel Andrew McDonald told The Hartford Courant that Guay’s interpretation of the law that created his job “seems to be a very plausible reading of the statute in its simplest terms. The statute … constrains the commission’s activities to two very discrete purposes” — holding meetings to either recommend job candidates for administrator, or to fire that administrator.

If the GAC wants to “undertake activities that are not included in the statute,” they might get “an opinion from the attorney general that allows them to,” McDonald suggested.

However, the state attorney general’s office has issued opinions backing what is generally called the “greater power/lesser power” rule—the express grant of power includes implied powers that are necessary or essential to exercise the express power—“a bit of common sense that has been recognized in virtually every legal code from time memorial,” according to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.

It is utter nonsense when Mr. Guay says the GAC must fire him, if it so desires, without any due process accorded to him. He must come to his senses and do the job he was hired to do. He must stop trying to undermine the independence of the agencies he is charged with serving. If he persists, let him return to the state Board of Accountancy where worked as director for 22 years.

James H. Smith, a retired newspaper editor, is the President of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.


NOT COMPLETE ARTICLE - THE REST HAD TO DO WITH POSSIBLE ETHICS VIOLATIONS
Rev. Moales; It’s called the Freedom of Information Act and it even applies to you…

What?  Wait! blog
Jon Pelto
Jun 21, 2012


Earlier this week, Bridgeport’s illegally appointed Board of Education held a meeting of its Ad Hoc Budget Committee to hear from part-time superintendent of schools, Paul Vallas, about his plans to over-ride local support and pull Bridgeport’s successful alternative high school program out of the University School, a non-profit entity that has been part of the Bridgeport community for decades.

Although the meeting agenda was explicit, with only two items to be discussed, parents, University School supporters and other community members had to sit through a meeting in which the Budget Committee members and staff held a wide-ranging discussion on a variety of issues.

When an audience member, Carmen Lopez, a retired Connecticut judge, raised the point that Connecticut law requires that the members of a public board or committee limit their discussions to what is on the agenda, the Committee’s Chairman, Reverend Kenneth Moales Jr., became verbally abusive yelling that he “will talk about anything he wants to talk about” and that “no-one is going to tell him what he can talk about at his meeting.”

When informed that failure to follow the agenda would be a violation of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, Moalas was reported to have said “I don’t care.”

Considering that Rev. Moales served as Mayor Bill Finch’s campaign treasurer in last year’s mayoral campaign, one would expect that he would understand the law and appreciate the importance of respecting Mayor Finch’s constituents, but apparently that isn’t the case.

Following his unwarranted attack and diatribe, the Mayor or someone on the Mayor’s staff would do well to provide Rev. Moales with a copy of the law or they could simply print off the following:

Sec. 1-225.  (Formerly Sec. 1-21).  Meetings of government agencies to be public.  Recording of votes.  Schedule and agenda of meetings…

“(c) The agenda of the regular meetings of every public agency…shall be available to the public and shall be filed, not less than twenty-four hours before the meetings to which they refer…Upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of a public agency present and voting, any subsequent business not included in such filed agendas may be considered and acted upon at such meetings.”  [This means that the members can only discuss the items on the agenda unless, by a two-thirds vote the members move to open the agenda and add additional items.  The reason this law exists is that the public has a fundamental right to know, at least 24 hours in advance, what their public servants will be discussing.]

In addition, Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education should specifically note that;

“(d) Notice of each special meeting of every public agency…shall be posted not less than twenty-four hours before the meeting to which such notice refers… The notice shall specify the time and place of the special meeting and the business to be transacted.  No other business shall be considered at such meetings by such public agency. “[This means that if the meeting in question is a “special meeting” then the agenda cannot be modified in any way.]  NOT THE COMPLETE BLOG POST


Change of plans. Meetings creating teacher evaluations will be public.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, CT MIRROR
May 23, 2012

After holding numerous meetings behind closed doors to finalize details on how teachers and principals will be graded, the State Department of Education has said the public and the media can attend the sessions from now on.

"Something is different at this meeting. At this meeting -- in the interest of transparency -- the state department has invited the press to join us," is how Elizabeth Shaw, the state's consultant with Education First, started Wednesday's "working group" meeting.

This decision to conduct open meetings comes one day after the Connecticut Mirror reported that several private meetings have taken place without public notice and that 10 more closed sessions had been scheduled.

It also follows a contentious Performance Evaluation Advisory Council meeting last week, the first public meeting in three months, where members butted heads on how much weight to give students' standardized test results in teacher evaluations.

The council had planned to reconvene this past Monday to start to hash out issues raised during the meeting, but Monday's session was cancelled, and the closed "working group" meetings scheduled instead. The next public meeting had not been scheduled until June 21, nine days before the panel's June 30 deadline. The state Board of Education is expected to sign off on the evaluations shortly after that.

The state's Freedom of Information Act defines a meeting as "any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multimember public agency."

And though a meeting can include "any communication by or to a quorum of a multimember public agency" both the Freedom of Information Commission and state courts say the presence of a quorum isn't essential for a meeting to have occurred.

Several members of the Teacher Evaluation Working Group that met Wednesday were surprised to learn that their previous meetings were not public, including one the previous day.

"I thought they always were public," said Lori Rossomando, the leader of Stamford's teachers' union.

However, she said having the media present at a meeting "can do a disservice to the process" if a story is bias or does a bad job of reporting the meeting. "But that said, the press has the right to be here," she said.

A spokesman for the state department agrees.

"We have decided that inviting the media to these working group sessions is the right thing to do. We are hopeful and confident that these sessions can proceed with the candor necessary for participants to advance this critical process," spokesman Jim Polites said.

The next meeting is slated for Thursday, May 24, at 9 a.m. at the Connecticut Association of Schools in Cheshire. Other meetings are set for May 29 and June 5 and 12...(More to this story, but the FOI part is fully discussed above.)

Teacher evaluation panel moves its work behind closed doors
CT MIRROR
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Keith M. Phaneuf
May 22, 2012

After a contentious public meeting last week on developing a new teacher and principal evaluation system, the state Department of Education has closed its meetings on the topic to the public and the media.

Instead, a series of private "working group" meetings is scheduled to take place in the weeks before the panel's June 30 deadline to create a model process on evaluation under the new education reform law. The next public meeting is not until June 21, nine days before the panel is required to finish their work. The state Board of Education is expected to sign off on the evaluations shortly after that.

Asked if these "working group" meetings will be open to the public, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor last week referred all questions to a State Department of Education spokesman, who declined to give notification of these meetings nor copies of its minutes.

At its first public meeting in three months, members of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council last week butted heads on how much weight students' standardized test results should have when their teachers are evaluated.

The council had planned to reconvene Monday to begin to hash out a list of issues raised during the meeting, including the standardized tests issue and how many times teachers should be observed during the school year.

The education department cancelled Monday's meeting, however, and scheduled 10 private "working group" meetings instead, including one this morning on principal evaluations. The other groups set to meet in closed sessions this week include Implementation, Teacher Evaluation, Pupil Services and Observation.

An education department spokesman failed to respond to numerous requests for time, date and location of upcoming meetings. The Mirror received a copy of those meeting dates from a panel member.

The section of the Connecticut General Statutes commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act defines a meeting as "any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multimember public agency."

And though a meeting can include "any communication by or to a quorum of a multimember public agency" both the Freedom of Information Commission and state courts say the presence of a quorum isn't essential for a meeting to have occurred.

In an August 1989 decision involving the East Hartford Emergency Medical Services Commission, the state Appellate Court upheld the FOI Commission's finding that a subcommittee of the commission met illegally even though it involved less than a quorum of the full board.

"The plain language of General Statutes...[is that it] does not require a quorum as a necessary precondition to any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency," the appellate court wrote in its decision. "The legislature did not define a meeting as any hearing or proceeding of a quorum of a public agency."

A subcommittee can be engaged in a public proceeding under the law if multiple members gather "to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power."

This is not the first round of closed "working group" meetings the Department of Education has conducted in recent months. At the full public meeting last week, each working group leader gave presentations on decisions that already had been made.

The Mirror's requests for notification of these meetings and minutes have gone unanswered. Neither did the education department inform the Secretary of the State's Office of these meetings, as is required by the state Freedom of Information law.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's Education Committee, said that while he can appreciate the need for this group to meet privately, he also understands it is bound by the state's FOI laws.

"There are times when it's hard to develop new models and reach agreement with everyone in the world looking on," the West Hartford Democrat said.

"If the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council has found that it needs smaller groups to meet privately, and if that does not comply with the Freedom of Information law, then they need to find a way to bring themselves in conformance... They need to follow the law or come to us and seek an exception."


Complaint filed over reform consultant hiring
Ken Dixon, CT POST
Updated 09:31 p.m., Friday, April 27, 2012

HARTFORD -- The head of a nonprofit consumer watchdog on Friday filed a whistleblower complaint charging that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor violated state law in the hiring of school reform consultants in January.

Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, asked the state's auditors of Public Accounts to investigate Pryor and Malloy's use of a little-known agency, the State Education Resource Center, to avoid state contracting rules in hiring two consultants for $269,000.

In reaction, Andrew J. McDonald, Malloy's legal counsel, said Friday the charge against the governor is "reckless" and "devoid of any evidence."

Robert M. Ward, one of the two state auditors, said Friday that state rules requiring the protection of anonymity in whistleblower limited him to only confirming a complaint was filed.

Swan, a well-known state activist, said he submitted the accusation after reviewing state Department of Education e-mails and contracts, copies of which he was given under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The e-mails, some of which were obtained by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers, indicate Education First Inc., of Seattle, and Leeds Global Partners, of New York, were both acting as consultants for Pryor even before their contracts were signed earlier this year.

Education First's $60,000 contract and Leeds' for $195,000, plus other add-ons, were paid by SERC. In addition, Pryor, who took his job last fall, said recently that SERC was used to expedite development of the governor's education proposals. Both firms are still on the job; extension of their contracts is under discussion.

An e-mail indicates the Education Department transferred funding to SERC at around the time Leeds contract was approved on Jan. 26. Officials at SERC have not returned several calls for comment.

Another education consultant, DSA Capital, of New Jersey, helped review the credentials of Education First and Leeds before they were contracted, the e-mails indicate.

Swan wants the auditors to review DSA Capital's role as well. Hearst Connecticut Newspapers reported this week that DSA Capital was paid by a national organization of state education commissioners.

"I filed a complaint because if it is and it should be illegal, they clearly circumvented state law to hire a consultant, to hire another consultant to write state law to hire more consultants," Swan said. "That kind of procedure can't be good."

Swan said he wanted the contracts terminated and the consultants banned from working in Connecticut for five years.

"I want those who broke the law to be held accountable," Swan said. "They are clearly cronies of the commissioner." He contests Pryor's claim that SERC is a nonprofit exempt from state bidding requirements, but rather is acting as a direct agent for the state and isn't registered as a nonprofit.

If the contracts, which expired in March, are found to be improper, he doesn't know what kind of relief would be available.

"I can confirm our office has received a whistleblower complaint with regard to the contracts involving the Department of Education, the State Education Resource Center, Leeds Global Partners, Education First and DSA Capital," Ward said Friday.

He noted there is already a routine audit under way at the department and it will expand to look into the contracting awards and SERC.

State auditors don't have the authority to grant relief, but under state law their findings will be transferred to Attorney General George Jepsen for further investigation, the eventual writing of a so-called closing letter on the issue and possible further action.

McDonald, commenting for the administration, said Friday he would be willing to sit down with auditors and Swan "tomorrow" to review the issues, support his claims, or apologize to the governor.

"This is one of the more reckless efforts I've seen by Tom," McDonald said. "His complaint is devoid of any evidence to support his sensational conclusions regarding the governor. If not today, then sometime soon, he'd better be prepared to put some substance behind these thin assertions."






Bill to allow public boards more discretion to meet privately hits a snag
Keith M. Phaneuf, CT MIRROR
March 14, 2012

A proposal to give public agencies greater discretion to meet in closed sessions with their attorneys has fallen into political limbo at the Capitol.  The legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee, which originally raised the bill and scheduled a public hearing on the measure, suspended the latter and may not reschedule it in the face of objections from right-to-know advocates.

"I am not committed to going forward with a public hearing right now," said Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the GAE committee. "There are very limited things you can go into executive session for right now and we're always cautious about (changing) that."

The measure, which originally was slated for a public hearing on March 12, and later was considered to be heard next week, had been raised at the request of Attorney General George Jepsen's office, which declined comment late Wednesday afternoon.  But it quickly drew opposition from the state Freedom of Information Commission, as well as from the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. The latter is a coalition of nearly three dozen newspapers, television and radio stations and other news media organizations.

"There's already too much secrecy in state and local government and we're trying to prevent more," said CCFOI President Jim Smith, a veteran Connecticut newspaper editor who retired last year as executive editor of the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald.

Smith said his group fears the bill would open the door to potential abuse of closed-door talks by public agencies. "They could go into executive session and discuss anything and no one would know," he said.

At issue is a 26-year-old statute enacted to clarify when public agencies can meet in private with legal counsel.  The state's right-to-know law has long allowed for private discussions on select topics, such as pending litigation, contract negotiations and certain personnel matters.  But after a state Supreme Court ruling raised new questions about closed sessions, the legislature acted in 1986 to ensure that public agencies could not exclude the public from discussions simply because legal counsel was involved. Instead legislators said closed-door discussions specifically must be related to a written document -- such as a legal opinion prepared by counsel.

In other words, public officials simply looking to pose broad questions on sensitive topics to their lawyers could do so -- but only in open session.

"We have this great (statutory) language that essentially says the lawyer represents the public agency, but the agency represents the public," Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state FOI Commission, said. "The client in this case is the public."

Murphy added that the state commission has "very strong reservations about the bill. I think it would bring us back to (before) 1986, and that would be locking the doors too quickly on public meetings."

Mitchell W. Pearlman, who served as the FOI Commission's executive director for 28 years through 2005, testified in 1986 that without the legislative fix, a government entity could meet privately "for whatever reason it wanted to if it did so with an attorney under the excuse of using the attorney/client privilege as it applies in non-governmental bodies."

The GAE committee faces a March 30 deadline for acting on bills it raised this session.



House passes emergency FOI fix
Keith M. Phaneuf, CT MIRROR
February 23, 2012

The House of Representatives adopted an emergency fix Thursday to the state's right-to-know law that could break a legal logjam blocking the release of voter lists and other omnibus public registries.

The bill, which passed 120-11 and now heads to the Senate, would allow public agencies to release major voter and property databases without the arduous task of identifying and redacting addresses of police officers, prison guards and other "protected" public employees.

But critics argued that the measure, adopted without a public hearing, is technically flawed, and offers little security to those employees hoping to keep their personal information private.

And the head of Connecticut's right-to-know agency warned Thursday that another legislative fix still might be needed.

"This is a whole lot better and helps the towns a whole lot more than what they are dealing with now," said Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

Official record-keepers at the state and municipal levels have been at odds since last June when the state Supreme Court ruled that a statute barring disclosure of home addresses of protected employees applied to the motor vehicle registration lists that communities use to prepare property tax bills.

Based on that ruling, legislators said it became clear that the statute also would apply to other common governmental databases, including voter registration lists.

Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill said she hasn't released an updated statewide voter registration list since that ruling, arguing there was no way to do so and be certain that the law -- as interpreted by the courts -- wouldn't be violated.

In theory the lists could be released, provided the addresses of all protected employees first were removed. But Merrill noted it would require cross-referencing data from hundreds of state and municipal records.

"We can't even figure out who to redact," she said. "We feel we would face liability under this ruling."

The measure adopted Thursday identifies three major classes of records that must be released, in full, to the public starting June 1:

    Municipal land records.
    Voter registration lists, logs of absentee ballot applications and related election information.
    And municipal grand lists, the databases that detail assessed values of land, building, motor vehicles subject to property taxes.

The measure does allow protected employees to submit a request in writing to municipal record-keepers, asking that their addresses be kept out of secondary databases.

But critics argued this offers very little protection.

"A good detective can find out where anybody lives within 48 hours" with access to land, tax and voting records, said Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold. "How much we are really accomplishing with this law is debatable."

The bill "gives me great pause," added Rep. Pamela Z. Sawyer, R-Bolton, who argued that the measure lacks uniformity. It is unclear which official in each community will process requests for confidentiality, or how the information might or might not be protected after someone from this protected class moves from one Connecticut town to another.

"What a surprise it is going to be," Sawyer said.

Chris vanDeHoef, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, decried the decision of leaders in the Democratic-controlled House to take up a bill not seen until Thursday to solve a problem that has lingered since last summer.

"The newspaper association is disappointed that the legislature has chosen to make a change in the FOI law -- via an emergency certified bill without a public hearing," said vanDeHoef, who also lobbies for the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. "We think the FOI law is more important than that."

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the bill wasn't adopted Thursday to speed up the release of voter lists specifically or any other particular public database.

"We've been begged by town clerks, other municipal officials, the secretary of the state, real estate attorneys, title searchers and banks to fix this immediately," he said, adding that when it became clear there was a consensus in the House on how to act, leaders were ready to move. "Everyone has their own reasons for wanting this fixed now."

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a candidate for Congress, acknowledged that the unavailability of voting lists in an election year is a problem.

Both of vanDeHoef's groups were supporting a bill offered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a measure that was raised at a public hearing this week before the legislature's Planning and Development Committee.

The governor's bill would have returned the FOI law to its pre-1999 status when it came to protected public employees, keeping only those workers' personnel records confidential.

The governor's spokesman, Andrew Doba, said Thursday that while the House bill "goes in a different direction than the governor's legislation, the bill is acceptable."

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, said she also fears that the House bill offers "somewhat illusory protections" to select public employees.

"In this day and age, where so much information is available electronically, the approach in this bill is not very clean," she said. "I understand what the legislature is trying to do, but the whole thing is somewhat convoluted," she said. "Perhaps a more comprehensive look should be taken in the future."


UNDER THEN MAYOR NOW GOVERNOR MALLOY, THIS TYPE OF POLICY NOTHING NEW FOR STAMFORD!
Change of course on Gabriele FOI complaint

Kate King, Stamford ADVOCATE
Updated 10:15 p.m., Wednesday, February 22, 2012

STAMFORD -- A state Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer has changed course on a complaint city Rep. Sal Gabriele, R-16, lodged against the Board of Representatives.

The officer, Victor Perpetua, appeared to side with Gabriele at a Jan. 30 commission hearing, which was held to discuss the city representative's allegations that eight members of the board's leadership violated the Freedom of Information Act by discussing, signing and sending a letter related to city business without holding a public meeting.

But in his proposed decision, which both parties received earlier this week, Perpetua wrote that the letter did not constitute a proceeding of the board and recommended dismissal of Gabriele's complaint.

"At the hearing, the hearing officer indicated on the record that he believed that those actions constituted a proceeding of the respondent board," Perpetua wrote in his finding, dated Feb. 2. "However, upon review of the relevant case law, the hearing officer's conclusion was premature, and regrettably erroneous."

Perpetua's proposed decision represents an abrupt reversal from the January hearing in Hartford, during which he seemed so sure of his support for Gabriele's position that he did not accept evidence on the complaint and denied a request from Board of Representatives President Randy Skigen and Deputy Minority Leader Harry Day to testify.

Skigen and Day did submit a 91-page response to the commission on Feb. 8, but it is unclear if the information played a factor in Perpetua's proposed finding, which is dated six days earlier.

On Wednesday, Perpetua said he did not wish to comment beyond the text of his preliminary finding.

"I don't comment on decisions, especially my own decisions, that are still pending," he said.

Skigen and Day also said they did not wish to comment. Gabriele said he plans to pursue his complaint. The full Freedom of Information Commission will consider the grievance and Perpetua's proposed finding at a March 28 meeting before issuing a final decision.

Gabriele now faces an uphill battle with his overall complaint, but he pointed to a section of Perpetua's finding as a "big win for the Stamford residents, who deserve openness and transparency in their city government."

Gabriele and his lawyer had claimed the board leadership -- which comprises the president, clerk, and six majority and minority leaders -- acted as a committee of the 40-member board when it signed and sent a letter to former Director of Legal Michael Larobina last August. Since the board's leadership did not conduct this activity in a public setting, Gabriele alleged they were in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

The legal distinction of the board's leadership is significant. If the FOI Commission decides the eight-member group constitutes a committee of the Board of Representatives, the ruling would effectively halt the leadership's longstanding practice of meeting in private, non-public forums with each other and the mayor.

Public agency committees are required, under FOI laws, to meet in public meetings for which advance notice is given.

In his four-page proposed decision, Perpetua indicated the leadership group does represent a board committee.

"It is concluded that leadership members of the respondent constitute a de facto subcommittee of the respondent Board," he wrote.

Gabriele said the statement is "good news for Stamford residents."

But Perpetua ultimately disagreed with the root of Gabriele's complaint, which asserted that the leadership's decision to discuss, sign and send a letter to Larobina amounted to a proceeding of the board in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. While he said "the leadership members of the board exercised at least some de facto advisory power," in sending the letter, the activity in and of itself was not an integral part of the larger board's business and therefore not subject to FOI laws.

"The leadership members did not conduct business that would ordinarily have been conducted by the respondent board as a whole, their actions did not advance the business of the board as a whole, and the letter they signed was not brought before the respondent board as either a recommendation for action or as an action requiring ratification by the board as a whole," Perpetua wrote. "It is therefore concluded that the discussions surrounding the leadership members signing of the president's letter ... did not constitute a proceeding of the respondent board."

The letter in question was written by Skigen and sent to Larobina questioning his decision to pay former Board of Finance Chairman Joe Tarzia's legal fees for three civil lawsuits filed against him by city employees.

"Before asking taxpayers to foot the bill for this action, I would encourage you to seek either a court ruling or an opinion from qualified, independent outside legal counsel," Skigen wrote. "I believe the conclusion reached to provide counsel to Mr. Tarzia at taxpayer expense is incorrect and should be reconsidered."

Board Clerk Annie Summerville also signed the letter, and the board's six majority and minority leaders authorized administrative assistant Valerie Pankosky to sign their names as well.


Gabriele poised to win FOI complaint - previously in Stamford
Open government: Gabriele poised to win FOI complaint; reps have 'grave concerns'

Kate King, Staff Writer, Stamford ADVOCATE
Updated 10:49 p.m., Monday, January 30, 2012

HARTFORD -- City Rep. Sal Gabriele, R-16, won a preliminary victory Monday in a Freedom of Information complaint lodged against the Board of Representatives, the outcome of which could have far-reaching effects within city government.

Gabriele and his Fairfield-based lawyer, Joe Sargent, appeared before the state Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford Monday morning for a hearing on Gabriele's complaint, which alleged eight members of the board's leadership violated the Freedom of Information Act by discussing, signing and sending a letter related to city business without holding a public meeting.  Board of Representatives President Randy Skigen and Deputy Minority Leaders Harry Day and Mary Fedeli also attended the hearing, where they were represented by Stamford attorney Michael Toma.

Commission hearing officer Victor Perpetua disagreed with Toma's defense, which asserted the letter in question was not a government proceeding and the board's eight-member leadership did not constitute a government body subject to FOI laws.  Perpetua did not accept evidence on the complaint and denied a request from Skigen and Day to testify at the hearing.

"Not to minimize anybody's position, but it just seems obvious that a group of leadership individuals ... acted as a group, as some type of subset, either on behalf of or perhaps as a sub-committee," Perpetua said. "They didn't do it in their personal capacities.

"I'm also going to rule, just sitting here now, that the discussion of and signing and delivery of the letter constituted a proceeding for the purpose of the (Freedom of Information) Act."

Perpetua said he would issue a proposed decision on the complaint and recommend a remedy for consideration by the full commission. If upheld, Gabriele's complaint could effectively halt a longstanding practice by Board of Representatives' leadership to meet in private, non-public forums with each other and the mayor.  Gabriele, who has four FOI complaints pending against the city, said he was not looking for the commission to issue a monetary fine against the board.

"I would like for the entire Board of Representatives to take (Freedom of Information Act) courses," he said after the hearing. "The leadership of the Board of Representatives cannot have private meetings with themselves or the mayor's office to discuss city business. We have to have an open government. The residents of Stamford deserve to know how their government operates."

Perpetua said both sides could send him legal briefs on the complaint in order to influence his decision, and that if he changes his mind he will reopen the complaint for a full hearing involving evidence and testimony. He said he does not know when the commission will consider his recommendation on the complaint.  Skigen could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. Day and Fedeli declined to comment.

Gabriele's complaint, dated Sept. 15, stemmed from an Aug. 15 letter from Skigen to former Director of Legal Affairs Michael Larobina questioning his decision to pay former Board of Finance Chairman Joe Tarzia's legal fees for three civil lawsuits filed against him by city employees. Board Clerk Annie Summerville also signed the letter, and the board's six majority and minority leaders authorized administrative assistant Valerie Pankosky to sign their names as well.

"Before asking taxpayers to foot the bill for this action, I would encourage you to seek either a court ruling or an opinion from qualified, independent outside legal counsel," Skigen wrote. "I believe the conclusion reached to provide counsel to Mr. Tarzia at taxpayer expense is incorrect and should be reconsidered."

Tarzia, a longtime finance board member who resigned in February after fighting several ethics complaints, was served with three civil lawsuits over the summer. The actions, lodged by Director of Operations Ernie Orgera, Fleet Manager Michael Scacco and former Human Resources Generalist Tania Barnes, allege Tarzia improperly sued them in October 2010 without probable cause.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Tarzia, Larobina said the city would obtain independent counsel for the former finance board chairman while reserving the right to recover the cost of Tarzia's legal fees should the courts rule against him. In the Aug. 15 letter, Skigen and the board's leadership asked Larobina to seek a second legal opinion or court ruling on whether the city was liable for Tarzia's legal representation.

"If either a court or outside counsel determines that Mr. Tarzia is entitled to legal representation at the taxpayers' expense, we would encourage you to seek an additional appropriation for such costs, since we do not believe that your budget for this year anticipated funding for outside counsel of this situation," the letter said.

Sargent said the reference to an additional appropriation request was included to influence Larobina into seeking outside counsel on the matter. The Board of Finance and Board of Representatives have the power to approve or deny additional funding requests from city departments, including Legal Affairs.

"This letter was taken with such gravity that it forced corporation counsel to file a lawsuit for declaratory judgment," Sargent said.

Toma said the letter did not constitute an official proceeding by the board because the board has no power over the legal department and its eight-member leadership does not constitute a quorum of the 40-member board.

"The leadership are individuals and they cannot act formally on behalf of the board," Toma said. "That letter was a letter from leadership making a case to corporation counsel that his decision should be reconsidered. We would disagree that there was a proceeding of the board here."

Perpetua said he felt the Board of Representatives does indeed have limited advisory power over city departments. He also said he was not convinced the board's leadership did not constitute a section of the board engaged in conducting city business.

"Everyone knows that the leadership is a subset of the board," he said. "It's common knowledge. They get together, they make decisions, they go back or don't go back to their caucuses and seek to have those decisions formalized."

Toma unsuccessfully requested Skigen and Day be allowed to testify at the hearing.

"They have grave concerns that the import of some of the observations that you've made may make it very difficult for a 40-member board to operate if there are certain limitations on leadership to discuss things," he said. "I've been told that leadership communicates regularly on administrative issues like that. They frankly find it troubling that there could be a reading of the (Freedom of Information Act) that would require leadership to meet in an open meeting."

Perpetua denied the request to testify by saying he did not think it would not influence his conclusions, but said he would make a note of Skigen and Day's concerns in his recommendation.

"I don't think it changes the result," he said.



And they did, ultimately withdrawing offer to Republican.
Legislators urge SEEC to reject Giuliano as new director
Keith M. Phaneuf and Mark Pazniokas, CT MIRROR
January 13, 2012

The co-chairmen of the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee called Friday afternoon for the state's elections watchdog panel to reconsider its plans to name former Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano as its new executive director.

Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, and Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, told the State Elections Enforcement Commission by letter that Giuliano does not meet the basic qualification required of commissioners: that he be at least three years removed from partisan politics.

Giuliano, a Republican, served three terms as Middletown's mayor through 2011. He lost his bid for a fourth term last November, defeated by Democrat Dan Drew. The commission announced Thursday that it planned to name Giuliano to the executive director's post at a meeting Wednesday.

"I strongly believe the SEEC must first and foremost be an independent watchdog of Connecticut's elections policies, procedures and processes, without even a hint of partisanship, and a chief elected official, of any party and any municipality, who served in office and ran for re-election as recently as this nominee, compromises that desire for irrefutable nonpartisanship," Slossberg said.

"Individual SEEC commissioners must be removed from partisan politics for three full years before they are eligible to serve; I think the same standard should be applied to the agency's staff positions as well," she said.

"There is no place for partisan politics at Elections Enforcement," Morin said. "In essence, the commissioners are naming an executive director whose feet are still tired from walking the campaign trail. This is a job that rises above party politics -- even the slightest hint of partisanship would contaminate Election Enforcement's ability to carry out its mission."

Giuliano was one of two former mayors in the pool of four finalists. He faced competition from a Democrat, who is more than three years removed from elective office, who was backed by a top official of Common Cause, the advocacy group often seen as an ally of the commission at the state Capitol.

The Democrat confirmed he was a finalist, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his current job. One other finalist was the chief operating officer of a municipality. The fourth had no government experience.

Stephen F. Cashman, the chairman of the commission, said he would review the letter, but the call for being clear of partisan politics for three years is not required of the director.

"All I can indicate is that requirement was neither in the job description, which was posted by DAS, nor is it part of the statute associated with the appointment of the executive director," Cashman said. "It seems they are asking us to impose a condition that has not heretofore existed."

DAS is the Department of Administrative Services, which oversees hiring.

Giuliano could not be reached.

In addition to saying that Giluliano too recently was an active partisan, Slossberg and Morin also drew a parallel between Giuliano's situation and state ethics standards.

The legislators noted that ethics rules guard against more than just outright conflicts of interest, but also caution against the appearance of a conflict. The executive director of an agency that oversees and enforces fair elections, including Connecticut's public campaign financing program, should appear to be far removed from any office that has a stake in these services.

Both legislative leaders added that their objections are not personal.

"I'm not attacking the former mayor," Morin said. "I respect what he did" in municipal service.

"We need an independent watchdog agency that doesn't have the appearance of even a smattering of partisanship," Slossberg said.


See other article.
Former Middletown mayor to oversee elections enforcement
Keith M. Phaneuf and Mark Pazniokas, CT MIRROR
January 12, 2012

For the first time, the state's elections watchdog agency has chosen a politician and an outsider to lead its operations, tapping Sebastian N. Giuliano, a Republican fresh off a losing re-election campaign for mayor of Middletown.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission named Giuliano on Thursday to become its new executive director and general counsel, giving the agency its first director with a partisan past and experience as a candidate. He also would be the first director in decades who was not a career state employee.

Giuliano had served six years as Middletown's chief executive until losing his bid for a fourth term in November to Democrat Dan Drew, who was strongly backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Giuliano succeeds Albert P. Lenge, who retired in November.

"In light of the challenges we face in the area of public campaign financing and agency consolidation issues, I have every confidence that Sebastian Giuliano possesses the knowledge and experience to lead the commission," said Stephen F. Cashman, the commission's chairman. "We believe he is the right guy for the job."

Cashman said Giuliano stood out in a crowded field of candidates, but he may need to overcome some skepticism among Democratic proponents of public financing in the legislature.

The state's public financiing program was opposed by most Republicans, including the former party chairman who ran Giuliano's first successful campaign for mayor, Chris Healy.

The commission described Giuliano as a committed and dynamic leader with more than 20 years of experience practicing law in Connecticut. A 1975 graduate of Boston College, he received his law degree in 1978 from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Giuliano's appointment comes less than seven months after the commission was reclassified as a division -- along with eight other watchdog agencies -- within the new state Office of Governmental Accountability.

Along with the merger, the commission also has been challenged by deep budget cuts and reduced funding for the public financing program for state elections.

Nearly $60 million has been removed from the Citizens' Election Fund over the past three years to close budget gaps. The fund's main source of revenue, its share of proceeds from the sale of abandoned properties, was cut by 43 percent this fiscal year. Malloy and the legislature also cut cut one-third of the staffing for the commission in the current budget.

It is unclear if the commission has adequate staff to process applications for public financing, which will come in a rush later this year, when all 187 members of the General Assembly are up for re-election. About three-quarters of lawmakers have used the fund.

Lenge, who spent two years as executive director starting in the fall of 2009, had served the commission for 14 years prior to that as deputy director and assistant general counsel.

Lenge succeeded Jeffrey B. Garfield, who had been executive director for 30 years until his retirement in 2009.


Watchdog agencies spared as Malloy nails down budget cuts
Keith M. Phaneuf, CT MIRROR
September 6, 2011

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration already has secured one-fifth of this year's savings called for in the union concession deal--and apparently won't be trying to take any more funding from Connecticut's three chief watchdog agencies.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes reported Tuesday that $135 million was withheld from agencies' budget allotments for July through September--the first quarter of fiscal 2011-12--reflecting savings tied to layoffs, a wage freeze, retirements, benefit restrictions, facility closings and schedule reductions, and other cost-saving initiatives.

Barnes, Malloy's budget director, also said that while his office hadn't completed its review of all vacant positions funded in this year's budget, he anticipates that the Freedom of Information and State Election Enforcement commissions, as well as the Office of State Ethics, would be allowed to fill four budgeted posts that the administration effectively had frozen since July 1.

And when the elections panel's executive director, Albert Lenge, retires at month's end, the commission also likely would be allowed to fill his post, Barnes added.

Tuesday's press conference marked the administration's first public update on this fiscal year's $20.14 billion budget since the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition ratified a two-year, $1.6 billion concession package in mid-August.

That package, which is projected to save $700 million in this fiscal year, left the administration with a huge savings target to keep the budget in balance.

Typically, the administration orders "holdbacks," or reductions each quarter in agency allotments, as various programmatic cuts and other savings are identified.

"Obviously this year the process is even more critical than in most," Barnes said.

While some of the savings behind that figure is relatively easy to achieve--such as $138 million from a wage freeze--the administration concedes that others will take considerable effort. These include $170 million in total to come from three labor-management panels charged with finding cost-saving ideas in technology, health care and across state government in general.

In addition to the $700 million target, this year's budget also includes a $112 million general savings target not tied to the concession agreement that the administration also must achieve to keep finances in balance.

Barnes said the administration relied heavily on cost-saving ideas identified earlier this summer by department heads when it appeared that concessions were in jeopardy and that other savings would have to be found.

"We claim no originality here," he said.

Roughly $80 million of the $135 million in first-quarter savings is tied to personnel, stemming from the wage freeze, reductions in overtime, retirements and layoffs. Bargaining units representing state police and prison guard supervisors refused to accept the wage freeze, and Malloy cut 56 jobs from the former and 21 from the latter.

One of the single-largest savings involves $5.8 million from the planned closure of the Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield.

The plan also saves more than $2.4 million by reducing hours of operation in some state buildings, ordering cutbacks in maintenance and security, and canceling leases.

The administration had drawn criticism earlier this summer when it ordered layoffs of non-union personnel at the state's three chief watchdog agencies, and also refused to allow vacant, budgeted positions to be filled--all while union concessions were in jeopardy.

Those three watchdog groups, along with six others, were merged by the governor and legislature this past spring into a new Office of Governmental Accountability, as state officials struggled to close a built-in shortfall for 2011-12 that once stood as large as $3.67 billion.

The new legislation merging the nine groups directed them to share personnel, payroll, affirmative action and administration and business functions but reserved each individual division's control over "budgetary issues and concerning the employment of necessary staff to carry out the statutory duties."

Even after the concessions were granted, Barnes' office did not immediately agree to allow restoration of these posts, but rather invited the watchdogs to appeal for their return.

Further complicating matters, watchdog leaders and with some lawmakers noted that seven years ago, at the height of the scandal that drove former Gov. John G. Rowland from office, the legislature legally insulated Connecticut's FOIC, ethics and elections enforcement from any emergency cuts after the budget had been adopted, arguing this was essential to keep government open and honest.

And unless these agencies were permitted to use budgeted funds to fill vacancies, the spirit of that law--and possibly the letter of it as well--would be violated, critics argued.

"I expect that we will," allow these three agencies to fill those vacant, budgeted positions, Barnes said. "Obviously they have statutory protections with respect to their budgets that are unusual."

The vacant positions include communications and technology managers at elections enforcement, an ethics program manager at the Office of State Ethics, and the second-ranking post at FOIC, the managing director and associate general counsel's job.

The Elections Enforcement Commission also raised concerns recently when Albert P. Lenge, its executive director since October 2009, announced he would retire after Sept. 30.

The commission already lost a high-ranking leadership post that oversees the state election system's public financing program during the reorganization into the Office of Governmental Accountability.

"If the division is to remain independent, then the absolutely have to have their own executive director appointed by the commission," Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee said Tuesday.

"The commission should have the right to choose from a full field of capable candidates" for the next director, Lenge said. "I think that's extremely critical for this commission to maintain its autonomy."

Slossberg, who was one of those lawmakers who urged Malloy not to lay off workers or freeze posts in those three watchdog agencies, had been a critic of the merger plan adopted this past spring.

Malloy had originally sought a more extreme consolidation plan, which called for one homogenous government watchdog agency performing multiple functions with a director appointed by the governor. Lawmakers instead opted for directing nine watchdog entities to share administrative resources while otherwise preserving their autonomy.

"The statutes are pretty clear about the autonomy of those commissions," Barnes said Tuesday, adding that he expected the administration would not attempt to block elections officials from filling the vacancy after Lenge retires. "We'll follow the statute."


ACLU questions use of 'cell phone dragnets'
CT POST
Ken Dixon, Staff Writer
Updated 12:09 a.m., Thursday, August 4, 2011

HARTFORD -- Six cities across the state, plus the Connecticut State Police, were the targets Wednesday of an effort to gauge the extent that law enforcement may be using cellphone locations to invade privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut joined other ACLU offices in a nationwide campaign to determine whether police are improperly tracking people using their cellphone data. It's one of the first efforts at protecting digital privacy.

Freedom of Information Act requests were sent to the state police and local police departments of Danbury, Waterbury, New Haven, Willimantic, New London and Berlin in what could be the start of a multiyear effort to determine whether privacy rights have been violated.

Except for Berlin, where a warrantless federal tracking campaign occurred in 2008, the cities were selected geographically.

The ACLU asked whether law enforcement officials show probable cause and obtain warrants from judges before obtaining cellphone location information; and how often they seek such information.

In addition, the ACLU requested budget totals on the cost of local cellphone tracking; and policies and procedures for gathering location data.

David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut, said in that although Connecticut is relatively small, there are varying police cultures.

"We tried to pick departments that had some substantial activity and were widely dispersed," said McGuire, adding that similar requests occurred Wednesday in 30 other states. "Nationwide it is a large problem and innocent people are being caught in these cellphone dragnets. We're trying to understand the magnitude of the problem."

Danbury Police Chief Alan Baker confirmed the ACLU request made under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

"We did receive the request and like all FOI requests, it has been referred to corporation counsel for review," Baker said. "We anticipate it will take between 30 and 45 days to comply, which is standard. It's an emerging area of the law, and I don't know how much documentation we might have on it."

Lt. J. Paul Vance, spokesman for the state police, confirmed in a Wednesday phone interview that the state Department of Public Safety utilizes cellphone data. "We might use cellphone records depending on the investigation and what's required," Vance said. "We use cellphone records and sometimes it's helpful in criminal investigations. We don't use cellphone information for anything more than criminal investigations. We can and do obtain search warrants as required. It's not our intent to trample on anyone's rights."

McGuire said that the current requests for information were not given to the FBI because local police are the focus of this initial research effort.

In 2008, federal agents got details on calls to and from 180 mobile phones serviced by nine carriers, including the locations of the phones, in what amounted to an act of "mass surveillance," in Berlin, a southern suburb of Hartford, he said.

"This is very much the same as the government walking into private homes on a fishing expedition, without a warrant, and searching the premises," McGuire said. "And technology has made it a whole lot easier. These people were subjected to an unconstitutional search and never even knew it. If any law enforcement agencies in the state are carrying out similar intrusions, the public should know about it."

The ACLU said that more than 375 requests in 31 states were made by 34 ACLU affiliates to delve into the secret use of mobile phone-tracking capabilities.

"The ability to access cellphone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the national ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, in a statement. "A detailed history of someone's movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the Constitution protects."

"The Constitution guarantees Americans freedom from unwarranted government intrusion everywhere -- in their homes, online and on their cell phones," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "Technology may make it easier for that intrusion to happen, but that's no excuse for it."

More information about the ACLU requests is available at: acluct.org/celltrack.


OP-ED | Problems Belie CT’s Strong FOI Laws
CT NEWS JUNKIE
by Terry Cowgill | Jul 29, 2011 9:58am

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.


Retired FOI czar ready to lead unified watchdog group for free
Keith M. Phaneuf, CT MIRROR
July 29, 2011


The leader of Connecticut's right-to-know agency for three decades -- and who referred to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to merge nine watchdog groups "a disaster" is one of five finalists to head the unified Office of Governmental Accountability.

And Mitchell W. Pearlman, who retired in 2005 after 30 years with the Freedom of Information Commission and 28 years as its executive director and general counsel, also pledged to forfeit his salary if given the job.

Pearlman was scheduled to be interviewed later Friday by the division heads within the new Office of Governmental Accountability. That panel must recommend at least three finalists by the end of business Monday to Malloy, but can submit more. The governor must appoint a director from that pool of candidates.

The OGA division heads began public interviews Friday, with more scheduled for Monday. According to panel's personnel search committee report, the group is looking primarily from within Connecticut government for a new director to oversee business and administrative functions.

"Given what's happening, I thought it would be unfair for me to collect a salary," Pearlman, a Glastonbury lawyer, said, adding that the only benefit he would accept is coverage against on-the-job injuries under workers' compensation system. "If I can save a job or two, that's good."

Pearlman is collecting a pension from his former FOI post and said "I don't think this organization needs a double-dipper" who receives a salary as well.

The former FOIC chief said in May that it would be "a disaster" for the state's right-to-know program if the legislature adopted Malloy's plan to merge the FOIC with eight other watchdog panels. That merger would threaten the independence the agency needs to evaluate right-to-know compliance among all of state and municipal government in Connecticut. he argued.

But the legislature backed Malloy and merged nine watchdog agencies when it adopted the $20.14 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Besides the FOIC, the new Office of Governmental Accountability also includes: the Office of State Ethics; the State Elections Enforcement Commission; the Office of the Victim Advocate; the Office of the Child Advocate; the Judicial Selection Commission and Review Council; the State Contracting Standards Board; and the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners.

The merger requires the nine divisions to share personnel, payroll, affirmative action and administration and business functions. But the budget legislation reserves each individual division's control over "budgetary issues and concerning the employment of necessary staff to carry out the statutory duties."

Pearlman, who has served as a lecturer in journalism and law at the University of Connecticut since retiring from the FOIC, was one of three candidates interviewed Friday. "This is the first time I've been on this side of the table in 40 years," he joked.

"I started off with the notion: Do no harm to the substantive missions of the agencies," Pearlman said in describing the philosophy he would take to the job. "I will try to mediate disagreements. I don't think I'm the boss." That job, he said, belongs to the nine division heads. Finding "efficiency is in there. It's in the mix. But it't not first."

"I feel very strongly about the independence of the watchdog and advocacy agencies," he said, adding he is applying only because he wants to mitigate any damage the merger could do to the respective missions of the watchdog agencies. "I really don't want the job.

Though legislature and Malloy "overdid it" with the merger, the former FOI chief said he believes some cost-saving efficiencies can be found. But the former FOI chief said he does worry that integrating computer networks could make vulnerable confidential data.

Also interviewed Friday were Gloria Davis Delancy of Bloomfield, chief fiscal and administrative officer at the FOIC since 1998, and Michael J. Purcaro of Ellington, chief administrative officer for the state Department of Public Health since 2009.

Davis-Delancy, who also served for 10 years before that as an associate budget analyst with the legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, said one of her goals would be to keep the governor's budget office "out of your kitchen," arguing the administration is exercising considerable control over watchdog agency finances. "I don't like it."

The head of one watchdog agency questioned earlier this month whether that fiscal autonomy already had been compromised.

Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics within the new Office of Government Accountability, objected to Malloy's naming of an acting executive director of the new OGA to help determine how a $1.61 million budget cut will be apportioned among OGA's nine divisions.

The merger statute only allows the governor to appoint an acting director "If the Governmental Accountability Commission has not submitted such list to the governor on or before August 1, 2011."

Administration officials insisted Malloy didn't intend to exceed his authority on June 30 when he appointed Karen Buffkin, OPM undersecretary for legal affairs, to serve as acting executive director. Buffkin was named only to help coordinate how the spending cut would be apportioned among the nine divisions.

"I know that this is a difficult change for a lot of people," Purcaro said during his interview Friday, adding the merger nonetheless is the law and that it would be his role as director to ensure all divisions cooperate to meet budgetary deadlines and cost-cutting benchmarks. "Collaborating is key in what we're doing here."

Purcaro also held several other posts at DPH between 1999 and 2009 including communications manager, chief contracting and grants officer and director of  a disaster training center.

Other candidates selected for interview to be held Monday are:
   
David L. Guay of South Windsor, executive director of the state Board of Accountancy since 1989.
   
Nancy L. Hadley of Bridgeport, who served as Department of Motor Vehicles Commission from 1993 to 1995 and as deputy commissioner of Transportation from 1991 to 1993 under then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.  Hadley has worked as a real estate development consultant for the last 11 years. From 2004 to 2009 she also worked for the city of Bridgeport, first as director of the Office of Planning and Development and later as senior project manager for the city housing authority.


Compromise sought on postings
New Haven Register
Associated Press
Sunday, March 15, 2009 7:17 AM EDT

HARTFORD — When it was approved last year, a law requiring Connecticut municipalities to quickly post their meeting minutes online was hailed by supporters as significantly boosting public access to information.

In the five months since it went into effect, however, several small towns have suspended their Web sites instead and others are considering it, all saying they lack the technology or money to comply with the new posting rules.  Now, several compromises are being considered at the General Assembly to balance the law’s original intent with the towns’ concerns about being fined for violating the state Freedom of Information Act.

“Some of the towns aren’t used to posting things regularly, so we do recognize this could be a new challenge,” said state Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex. “Maybe with a little time to figure out how to do it, the towns may find that it’s easier than they initially thought it would be.”

The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, requires municipalities to post agendas on their Web sites at least 24 hours before all public meetings and their minutes within a week afterward.  Several town leaders, especially in small communities, complained to their legislators that they rely on part-time or volunteer Webmasters. Others said complying with the law would mean paying more to contractors for the extra work, equating to an unfunded state mandate.

Failure to comply could result in complaints to the state Freedom of Information Commission. At least nine towns have suspended their Web sites since October rather than risk facing an FOI complaint for violating the new rules.  The legislature’s committee on government administration and elections, which Spallone co-chairs, recently endorsed a bill intended to offer some middle ground.

Spallone said it would let towns grant themselves a waiver in the first year without explanation to state officials, and in the second year by stating their rationale to the FOI Commission. “Maybe the FOI Commission can work with the towns and we wouldn’t need a legislative fix,” he said.

He said he hopes that by the third year, small towns will have found ways to comply or technology will have advanced enough to make the process easier for them.  Spallone said he thinks most towns would gladly comply if they could work out their financial and logistical concerns.  The law got little discussion during last year’s legislative session. It was tacked onto a much-publicized law that revokes pensions of state officials who are convicted of illegal activities in office.

“It did come as a surprise to many people in the towns, so what we want to do now is provide more opportunity for the towns to accomplish it, and for the state government to find out their concerns,” Spallone said.

Susan Bransfield, Portland’s first selectwoman and president of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said she also believes towns want to provide as much access to documents as possible for citizens.  But it can be difficult to do that when budgets are so tight and the fear of an FOI complaint is hanging over their heads, she said.  The Connecticut Council of Small Towns and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities both want last year’s law completely repealed.

“I don’t disagree with what the lawmakers were trying to do. I think it’s absolutely important that constituents and people interested in what’s going on in town have access to information,” Bransfield said.

“What’s difficult is trying to guarantee that you can be 100 percent in compliance with the law,” she said. “Even in towns like mine where we get a lot of help and assistance, it’s unnecessary that if an FOI complaint comes across the desk, we could be fined or slapped on the wrist or whatever.”

Connecticut lawmakers have proposed more than a dozen bills on the topic in the current General Assembly session.  Some would repeal last year’s law entirely. Others seek compromises to exempt smaller communities or ease the potential punishments for towns who try in good faith to obey the law.

The legislature’s government administration and elections committee last week endorsed the middle-ground proposal backed by Spallone and others. It now heads to the Senate, and would go into effect immediately if the full General Assembly approves it.


League of Women Voters of Norwalk hosts FOI forum
By ROBERT KOCH, Hour Staff Writer
Posted on 12/04/2008

Residents learned details of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, and had an opportunity to ask questions, during an educational forum hosted by The League of Women Voters of Norwalk at City Hall on Thursday night.

A question by Tara Forschino, a Fox Run Elementary School PTO member, bore resemblance to a recent FOI request filed by parents of special needs children within the larger school district.

"If there is, whether it be, say a teacher or law enforcement, and there are background checks done," Forschino said. "If that information is in someone's file, and someone wants to evaluate just that specific information out of someone's personnel file, where would that fall?"

Tom Hennick, public education officer for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and guest speaker at the forum, had no simple answer for people looking for a blanket explanation.

"It really matters on what's in there," Hennick said. "But if you go ask for a background check on a teacher you believe is doing something improper, that would sort of, in my mind, spill it toward a matter of public concern and make sure it's released.

"But it really is a case-by-case basis," Hennick added.

About two dozen people attended the FOI Act Education Forum at City Hall. The forum came after two high-profile FOI requests in Norwalk.  In one request, initially labeled as overly broad and since settled, Ward B Democrats sought "all sent and received information" regarding the municipal trash-hauling debate.

In the other, parents of special needs children within the Norwalk public schools system sought information about Stacy Lore, the executive director of Spectrum Kids, LLC. They want proof of Lore's professional credentials and evidence that the district verified those credentials before it hired her firm to provide autism therapy for children in the district.  Forschino told The Hour afterward that her question did not refer to the Lore case, but rather sought advice on how parents should proceed, if they have concerns about a teacher.

During the 90-minute forum, Hennick outlined key aspects of the FOI Act, and answered questions from Forschino, league President Diane Lauricella and others.

"We want you to take back the information (provided tonight)," Lauricella said. "We think if you sharpen your pencils, it helps you hone in on what kind of information you need."

Hennick said many people believe the FOI Act, which became law 33 years ago, is about "free information," when it in fact addresses access to public information.

"It really should probably be freedom of access, because the Freedom of Information (Act) ... allows you to watch your government in action," Hennick said. "It's about transparency."

Under the act, citizens have the right, with certain exceptions, to obtain records and attend meetings of all public agencies. Such access applies to committees as well as subcommittees.  By a two-thirds vote, a public board may go behind closed doors to discuss a personnel matter, a pending claim or litigation, a security matter, the sale, lease or purchase of a property, or a document or record the board believes is exempt from disclosure, Hennick said.

Motives shouldn't, but often do play a role in FOI requests, according to Hennick.

"If you walk into an office and ask for a record that's not exempt, you're not supposed to be asked what it's for. The agency doesn't have a right to ask you what you want it for," he said.

According to Hennick, the number of formal complaints filed with the FOI Commission has grown steadily. In 2006, the commission received 687 formal complaints. Last year, that number grew to 716. With three weeks remaining in the current year, the commission has received 765 complaints.

"More people are finding out about FOI, but also, sadly to us, more people are using FOI as a weapon," Hennick said.

Hennick said some FOI requests are onerous, asking for thousands of pages of information.

Folks take their zoning seriously in lower Fairfield County...not exactly an FOI matter, but one that crosses the lines--is it ethics, FOI or "open government" at stake?
Steps taken for safety at Westport meetings
Westport News
By Don Casciato
Article Launched: 03/21/2008 02:51:14 PM EDT

With litte fanfare, Westport leaders are making an effort to provide more safety at town meetings.

The decision was made after a resident created a disturbance at a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting on Feb. 26. Robert Adler, of Owenoke Park, confronted ZBA members about the construction of a dormer at his home. Adler claimed his application five years earlier was similar but was rejected.

Prior to the start of Wednesday's ZBA meeting, an executive session was held with First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Westport Police Chief Al Fiore in attendance.

"We are constantly evaluating," said Joseloff in a telephone interview yesterday morning when asked about the session. "Briefly, we talked about what has been done and what procedures to use in the future."

As it stands now, there will be more of a police presence at meetings in town -- especially at night. Uniformed officers will be "popping in" during the course of Town Hall meetings but not be present all of the time.

In addition, a plainclothes officer is attending the series of six public hearings by the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) for the Westport Weston Family Y's application for a new facility.  Asked for comment, Fiore said, "I thought they [the board members] handled things appropriately." He also suggested that people call the police if there is a problem.

After the Feb. 26 incident, Joseloff and other town officials started looking at ways to increase safety at Town Hall meetings.

The first selectman pointed out that he wrote an opinion column for the Westport News issue of March 5. He also prepared a memo for department heads and all chairmen of all boards and commissions.

Since the memo and column, there has been a greater police presence, according to Joseloff. Since the Adler incident there has been a uniformed officer in meeting rooms or nearby.

The first selectman emphasized that he doesn't want to infringe on anyone's right to speak at meetings but there is a line "when someone gets physically threatening."

Informal meetings were held prior to the Wednesday evening executive session.

Also, there may be security cameras in the future. The town might already be prepared on that front because meetings in Town Hall are recorded even if there isn't a live broadcast.

"We walked out of the Wednesday meeting feeling happy Gordon [Joseloff] had addressed the issue," said Jim Ezzes, the ZBA chairman. "By having police on alert, we were pleased it will be a normal part of meeting control."

Recalling the fracas, Ezzes said, "It was a very frightening, very threatening experience to be attacked by someone in this blind rage and not knowing why."

At the meeting in which Ezzes said the board couldn't discuss the previous request, Adler became angry and repeated his request. When he did so a third time, Ezzes told Adler to leave the meeting or he would call the police.

In the final chapter of the tense evening at Town Hall, Westport police arrived three minutes after the phone call to the relief of Ezzes and the other ZBA board members.


Stop School E-Mail Abuse 
DAY editorial
Published on 12/14/2007 
       

Citizens of North Stonington have every right to be concerned that a public school teacher used her work e-mail account to send out political missives.

That is absolutely unacceptable.

And despite the public apology of Darren Robert, the Democratic chairman of the town's Board of Education, a thorough investigation of the alleged misuse of the e-mail system should be instigated.

Public school employees should never, ever use public property for political purposes.

The dust-up in North Stonington is jarringly similar to a situation that occurred in New London last May. In the Whaling City instance, Alvin G. Kinsall, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Education, asked the administrative aide to the superintendent of schools to send out an e-mail to district employees and supporters to head off a move by two city councilors to cut $500,000 from the education budget.

In this case, the employee did what the school board chairman asked her. But the message she sent was politically charged and should have signaled a red flag. The two councilors involved never filed a formal complaint, because they understood it was the administrative aide who might ultimately be penalized, and not Mr. Kinsall, who was clearly way out of line.

New London schools Superintendent Christopher Clouet later acknowledged the e-mail was inappropriate.

But now it's happened again in North Stonington, and this time residents Ron Lewis and Robert Miner pursued the matter by filing a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of all of the political e-mails sent to or from the school address. Reportedly there were more than 300 of them, many sent during the school day, and a few from Mr. Robert, the school board chair, and fellow board member William Briscoe.

Mr. Robert has apologized, but that is not enough. As an elected official, he should know better than to share his political views on school-district-issued e-mail. It is no different than if he had sent out his missives on Board of Education stationery.

And what about the teacher politicking on her students' time? Even if the e-mails were sent on her lunch break, she has no business using school property to disseminate political views.

It's also an injustice to parents whose e-mail addresses were provided to the school for school-related business. They didn't anticipate, nor should expect, to get political messages.

E-mail has been around long enough now for people to understand that it is a quick and efficient way to communicate. But municipal employees have to know it is inappropriate to use e-mail for political purposes.



FOI request taxes schools' resources
Greenwich TIME
By Andrew Shaw, Staff Writer
Published April 14 2007

Greenwich Public Schools officials say a recent parent request for the release of public documents under the Freedom of Information Act has created a burden on staff that will cost the district thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of work.

Superintendent of Schools Betty Sternberg gave a progress report to the Board of Education at Thursday's regular work session. The FOI request by Marianna Cohen seeks to retrieve all e-mails sent and received by seven of the top district administrators, including Sternberg, from Sept. 6, 2006, through March 15.

Cohen, who attended the meeting, specifically is seeking any e-mails regarding Parkway School, Glenville School and the board's task force on racial imbalance, space use and declining enrollment.

"It will take, really, a tremendous amount of dollars and effort," Sternberg said.

Jan Gunnip, the director of technology, told the board that she has two staff members working two hours a day each, essentially pulling them off duty from helping teachers. The staff has collected 10 weeks worth of e-mails so far in about a week and a half, she informed the board.

"It's painful for us to do that," she said.

The original request was made March 16, with additional requests and a prioritized list also given to school officials. The FOI act states that any public agency is required to provide all records on file upon request, with some exceptions, such as information like personal health or student education records.

Sternberg, the former state Commissioner of Education, said she has never seen an FOI request of such breadth and depth from one person. Sternberg said she does not take issue with fulfilling the request, which the district is legally obligated to do, but she said she's concerned students' education will suffer as a result of staff members being pulled away from their regular duties.

"It's certainly a diversion of resources," Sternberg said.

Sternberg did not want to guess the reason behind making the request, although she does not predict it is a preliminary step for a lawsuit. She said the content that Cohen will be given does not contain any secrets.

"I have nothing to hide," Sternberg said.

She told the board that additional staff support may be required in the form of a temporary worker at a cost of $27 an hour. Legal fees also will be applied. The costs must be absorbed by the district. The person requesting documents only is required to pay for the cost of printing the materials.

Board members advised the administration not to put the request too high on the priority list.

Under FOI, there is no definitive deadline to comply with a request, as long as the agency can prove they are working on fulfilling it in a timely manner, according to Tom Hennick, a state FOI public education officer.

"If a person makes a big request, the trade-off is you're not going to make it tomorrow," Hennick said. The district should make it clear that it is handling the request as best as possible, he said.

The law only stipulates the agency must give "prompt access" of the records. "Promptness is truly in the eyes of the beholder," Hennick said.

Board member Bill Kelly advised Sternberg to keep education the priority when budgeting for time.

"We don't have to comply as quickly as we're doing it," Kelly said.

Cohen, a backcountry resident who has children at the elementary and middle school levels, could not be reached for comment yesterday. When asked before Thursday's meeting if she knew of the FOI request, she denied knowledge of it.

In previous public statements, Cohen, who has attended virtually all of the task force meetings, has spoken out in support of postponing the Glenville renovation until the board can address racial imbalance and declining enrollment. She also has accused school officials of "cooking the outcome" of the task force.

The information Cohen has requested be available first is correspondence from and to Sternberg, Parkway School principal Paula Bleakley, director of human resources Ellen Flanagan, and assistant superintendent for business services Sue Wallerstein. Cohen has asked that all of the information be given to her by May 3.

Board Chairwoman Colleen Giambo said the request needs to be fulfilled, but there will be a cost. "There's a lot of competing demands," she said. "Our priorities are the business of education."

The FOI Law Is The Law:  Norwich councilors conduct public business on the phone without the public. 
By Day Staff Writer  
Published on 3/12/2007

 
Facing a bitter dispute between Mayor Ben Lathrop and a departing City Manager Robert Zarnetske, members of the Norwich City Council have maneuvered themselves into violating the state's right-to-know law. What the councilors and mayor did is repeated in many cities and towns, but it's still going against the state Freedom of Information Act, and it's not right.

The councilors and mayor got on the phone and basically had a secret meeting about what they would do to hire a successor for the city manager, who had announced he was resigning because of insurmountable differences with Mayor Lathrop.

The problem is that too many public officials consider such phone chats as a privilege. They don't get it that the electronic conversations amount to a meeting of elected public officials without city residents having any idea that the meeting is taking place or that the councilors are conducting public business over the phone.

The phone meetings, without any public notice, are every bit as egregious as though the councilors had all gotten together at a Norwich bar or restaurant to talk about city business without the public's knowing what they were doing. Or even knowing that they were meeting.

The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to make sure that the public gets fair warning of the meetings of municipal agencies before the events take place. The purpose is clear: to give citizens the opportunity to attend the meetings, hear the information and ask questions. Finding out after the fact that a meeting took place is no consolation.

But we sometimes need to act quickly, officials assert. In its wisdom, the FOI Act does provide for emergency meetings of city boards and agencies, but also requires that notices of those meetings be posted in advance and that minutes of such meetings be made public within 72 hours of the meeting.

In the Norwich case, one can argue persuasively that the councilors did not have to have an emergency meeting. But if they did, they could have posted a notice in the city clerk's office.

The problem is that public officials all too often find the requirements of the FOI Act to be cumbersome, inconvenient and annoying. Too bad. Democracy can be messy business.

The reason that former Gov. Ella T. Grasso threw her considerable political support behind the passage of a state FOI law in the first place is that too many town and city officials were holding secret meetings that pre-empted participation by the public. Too much was happening in smoke-filled rooms — without notice, without reason and without the public.

Thanks to Gov. Grasso and a handful of determined newspaper editors, Connecticut has a progressive law that advocates the rights of the public to government information and meetings.

The Norwich councilors may find the law inconvenient, but it is the law. In the future, they should pledge to obey it.

 

Mitchell Pearlman's Service;  Director of state agency a sterling advocate for the public's right to know what government is doing.
DAY editorial
Published on 12/9/2005

The Freedom of Information Act is the vehicle that allows all Connecticut citizens to find out what their local and state governments are doing. It is a cornerstone of a free and democratic society, so the work of the state commission that administers the legislation is one of the most important in state government.

Later this month, Mitchell W. Pearlman will retire as director of the state Freedom of Information Commission. Since the state established the commission in 1975, Mr. Pearlman has been the leader of this state agency that protects the public's right to know. He has done a splendid job.

In the mid-1970s, a group of newspaper editors persuaded Gov. Ella T. Grasso that too much of what happened in state and local governments took place behind closed doors or without official record. That was wrong, they said. The people of Connecticut had a right to know virtually everything that their governments did.

Gov. Grasso agreed and supported legislation establishing the FOI Commission. The bill passed and the organization went to work to make government more accountable to the public.

As a result, the people of Connecticut now have access to virtually all government meetings except when agencies are discussing matters exempted from disclosure. And those exemptions are extremely limited.

Mr. Pearlman has made his job a balancing act. That is to say, the commission he headed has heard thousands of appeals about potential FOI Act violations and judged them with an objectivity that has been superior. On the other side, as an advocate for openness in government, Mr. Pearlman has been passionate, persistent and patient — passionate in advocating for open government, persistent in tackling recalcitrant opponents and patient in seeking additional amendments improving the FOI Act.

He and his staff have traveled throughout the state to explain to local officials and the public the intricacies of the FOI Act and their rights and responsibilities contained in the legislation.

Within the judiciary, in the state departments, in local and state police matters and in many other activities, the presence of the Connecticut FOI Act has improved state and local government. Mr. Pearlman has been the ringmaster and conductor of that experience, and he has used the power judiciously.

One of the myths that he helped to dispel is the notion that the Freedom of Information Act was designed to make it easier for nosy newspaper, radio and TV editors and reporters to snoop into the business of government. Rather, the FOI Act confirms the rights of all the people of Connecticut, he has explained. In fact, more than 75 percent of the cases brought to the FOI Commission come from members of the overall public and not from media plaintiffs.

At home, Mr. Pearlman played a key role in establishing the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, a foundation that involves media editors, businessmen and women, educators, lawyers and others interested in promoting free speech and open government. The foundation raises money to enhance educational programs and other activities that promote open and good government.

Mitchell Pearlman has traveled to many other states to advocate for strong Freedom of Information laws. He also has spread the gospel of open government in countries scattered around the globe — to China, Morocco, Slovakia, South Africa, Mexico and other places.

He is truly the people's friend, and his absence from the Freedom of Information Commission is a major loss to the state.

Rowland gets access to papers
By Susan Haigh, Associated Press
April 21, 2004
HARTFORD -- A state commission yesterday ruled Gov. John G. Rowland's lawyers can see documents that were provided to the legislative panel investigating the governor by a contractor who is also cooperating with federal investigators.  The Freedom of Information Commission voted 3-0 yesterday, with one commissioner abstaining, to side
with the governor's lawyers.

It is doubtful the House Select Committee of Inquiry will turn over the documents to Rowland and the public for review. The panel will seek an immediate stay today and file an appeal in Superior Court, the committee co-chairmen said.  That court challenge could take longer to conclude than the committee's investigation into Rowland. The
10-member panel plans to release its documents once it releases its recommendation to the House of Representatives on Rowland's possible impeachment.

"I certainly hope that an appeal will take longer than the committee will take to finish its business," said state Rep. Arthur O'Neill, R-Southbury, the committee co-chairman.
Rowland's lawyers were denied access to documents and statements from Kurt Claywell, a state contractor who said he gave the governor thousands of dollars in Cuban cigars and champagne to speed up payments to his electrical company.  Claywell has said he will testify before the committee.

Members of the inquiry committee say releasing the documents could jeopardize continuing investigations. Rowland's lawyers have said he should have access under Connecticut's open records laws to information being relied on by the panel.  Committee members argue they need to keep documents from the investigation secret to protect the probe and encourage reluctant witnesses to turn over needed information. Last week, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would keep documents private until after the inquiry committee finishes its work.  Rowland has said he would not veto or sign the bill, allowing it to automatically become law at 12:01 a.m. today.

Susan Quinn Cobb, an assistant attorney general representing the committee, urged the FOI commission to wait until after the bill becomes law to consider the governor's complaint. She said it was clear the legislature wanted to keep the documents private until after the panel completed its work.  But FOI Commissioner Andrew J. O'Keefe, who issued a preliminary ruling Monday siding with the governor's lawyers, said the commission should only consider what the law was at the time of Rowland's request to see the documents.

"There was an entitlement to the governor to those records at that time," said O'Keefe, adding the inquiry committee is a public agency and should abide by state FOI laws.
Mitchell Pearlman, executive director of the FOI commission, also sided with Rowland's lawyers. He said waiting until today or a week from today would not change what the law was when Rowland sought the records and was denied access.  State Rep. John Wayne Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the inquiry committee, said he was
disappointed with the ruling and suggested the commission was upset by the recent legislation that will keep tens of thousands of documents private until after the inquiry panel finishes its work. Under the bill, only documents entered into evidence will be available immediately to the public and media.

"The commission from Day One was unhappy with the proposal and this was their way of circumventing it," Fox said.



Commission still untrained in information laws
Stamford ADVOCATE
By Natasha Lee, Staff Writer
Published December 24 2006

STAMFORD -- Nearly nine months after the city agreed to train fire commissioners about open-records laws, it has yet to uphold its end of the bargain.

The deal was reached in April, after The Advocate filed a complaint with the state over the Fire Commission's failure to file meeting agendas, meeting minutes and members' votes as required under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The act protects citizens' rights to access information from public agencies.

The city's legal department, which agreed to make sure the commission adhered to open-records laws, said miscommunication between the department and commission has stalled the training.

"We probably assumed the fire department was going to arrange that (the training) because they are the ones who were supposed to go," said the city's director of legal affairs, Thomas Cassone.

There is no deadline for the training, but without it, the city and Fire Commission are not in compliance with the settlement. The Fire Commission also continues to violate the Freedom of Information Act by failing to file proper, detailed agendas.

City attorney Mike Toma said he contacted the state's Freedom of Information Commission and the Fire Department's clerk Wednesday to arrange a training date within the next couple of months.

The settlement came after The Advocate filed complaints with the state commission over a lack of meeting minutes and agendas supposed to be filed by the Fire Commission.

The Freedom of Information Act requires that minutes of public meetings be made available to the public within seven days.

During an investigation into the fire department's hiring practices beginning last year, The Advocate attempted to review agendas and minutes, after learning that friends and relatives of commissioners and firefighters were named next in line for job openings over other candidates who scored higher on the firefighters exam. Mayor Dannel Malloy's nephew, fire chief Robert McGrath's son and the son of Fire Commissioner E. Gaynor Brennan were among the candidates in line for jobs.

Top scorers not hired told The Advocate they thought the process was fixed because they were asked few questions during brief interviews by the fire commissioners.

When The Advocate tried to obtain records of the meeting minutes and how commissioners voted for applicants, none of the documents was available at the city clerk's office or fire department offices. The Freedom of Information Act requires that records of how each commissioner votes on an issue be made public within 48 hours.

The commission has since changed its hiring policy to require members to score applicants' oral interviews on a scale of 1 to 10, with each commissioner's assessment kept on file and available to the public should applicants question why they were not hired.

Under the settlement, the city's legal department acknowledged the commission failed to keep and file proper records as required by law. As part of the settlement, the legal department also agreed to review the agendas and meetings of the city's 23 boards and commissions twice a year. In turn, The Advocate agreed to drop two pending complaints regarding the Fire Commission before the Freedom of Information Commission.

Cassone said his staff has started reviewing agendas and minutes, checking to make sure they are detailed, and for any "glaring mistakes." The review will be filed with the mayor's office by the Jan. 1 deadline. The second review deadline is July 1.

The city's Board of Representatives and Board of Finance members are given guidebooks that reference Freedom of Information laws, as well as procedures and guidelines for running meetings, preparing agendas and filing minutes. Commissioners, whose positions are either approved or appointed, typically rely on more experienced members to share commission guidelines, Cassone said.

"People who are volunteers are prone to make mistakes, and it's our responsibility to guide them when we see them. And certainly if The Advocate, or anybody, points out noncompliance of the Freedom of Information laws, we'll advise them," he said.

The law department routinely offers Freedom of Information workshops for newly elected or appointed officials, Cassone said.

Police panel shirks laws to hold meeting
Stamford ADVOCATE
By Zach Lowe, Staff Writer
Published December 12 2006

STAMFORD - The Police Commission barred the public from a special meeting Saturday to discuss undisclosed personnel issues and switched the site of the meeting at the last minute.

The meeting occurred after city officials accused the police union of orchestrating a nine-day sickout that apparently ended Friday.  The union has denied organizing the sickout, which would be a violation of state labor law and the union's contract with the city.

An Advocate reporter went to 73 Ocean Drive West in the Shippan section of Stamford - the home of Police Commission Chairman Mark Denham - at 12:30 p.m. Saturday to attend the meeting, but no one answered the door and no one appeared to be home. No lights were on, and no cars were in the driveway.

It is unusual for the commission to meet on a weekend or at a member's home. Most meetings are held Monday evenings at police headquarters.  When the reporter called police headquarters Saturday seeking the site of the meeting, the man who answered said neither he nor the desk sergeant on duty knew about a Police Commission meeting that day.

The meeting was held at police headquarters, Denham said. The commission moved the meeting because he was out of town and could not host it, Denham said. He participated by telephone.  City and Town Clerk Donna Loglisci said her office never received notice of the meeting, as required by the state Freedom of Information Act.

Denham would not say what was discussed at the 12:30 p.m. meeting, which lasted until 2:10 p.m. He said nearly the entire meeting was held in executive session, meaning the public could not attend.

Officer Michael Merenda, president of the police union, said the commissioners would not let him attend because they were in executive session. Merenda said the commissioners told him they went into executive session to discuss "personnel matters."

They did not elaborate, he said.

Public meetings may go into executive session to discuss personnel issues only if the matter involves a specific employee or employees, according to state Freedom of Information laws. The employee or employees must agree to have the meeting held in executive session.

Denham said yesterday the commission discussed general personnel issues, not cases involving specific employees.

"I guess we made a mistake then," Denham said when informed of the rules for executive session. "It was my understanding we could go into executive session for personnel issues whenever we wanted."

Loglisci said yesterday that her office did not receive notice of a Saturday police commission meeting. Special meetings, such as the one held Saturday, are required by law to be posted with the town clerk at least 24 hours in advance. The notice must state the time and place of the meeting and the business scheduled to be discussed.

There also is no record of a Saturday meeting on the Police Commission's page on the city's Web site, www.cityofstamford.org.

"Personnel matters" were the only issues to be discussed, according to an agenda for the meeting sent to The Advocate. Under state law, boards and commissions are supposed to specify what they plan to discuss.

Mayor Dannel Malloy wrote to the chairmen of dozens of city boards and commissions in January reminding them of their obligation to file agendas with the city clerk and take minutes at all meetings. The Police Commission - which had not filed any records with the clerk's office for two years - then filed records dating to 2004. At the time, the Fire Commission was being scrutinized for lax record-keeping of its meetings.

Under the state Freedom of Information Act, records of votes must be made public within 48 hours, and minutes of meetings must be available for public inspection within seven days.

In January, Malloy said boards and commissioners commonly overuse executive sessions because members, who are volunteers, don't know the rules.

"I think if you ask most people, they think you can talk about personnel issues in executive sessions, when in fact personnel issues alone is not sufficient reason," the mayor said at the time. "Even when they are going into executive session, the public should know what they are discussing in executive session."

Members must vote to go into executive session.

FOI official: Steakhouse meetings improper
By Kevin McCallum, Stamford ADVOCATE Staff Writer
November 23, 2003
STAMFORD -- The police and fire pension boards have routinely violated state Freedom of Information laws by holding what are supposed to be open public meetings in private rooms of pricey steakhouses, according to state FOI officials.

Officials for both pension boards say their meetings at such places as Bennett's and Morton's steakhouses are not open to the public because sensitive medical information and investment strategy are discussed.  City and state officials say that's irrelevant.

"There is no special provision for pension boards not noticing meetings, not being public, not having agendas, things like that," said Tom Hennick, public education officer for the state Freedom of Information Commission.  The city has four independent pension boards. The certified and custodian boards hold open meetings in the Government Center. They also send copies of their
agendas and meeting minutes to the city clerk's office, where they can be reviewed by the public.  The police and fire pension boards don't file agendas or minutes or open their meetings to the public.

Board of Finance member Joseph Tarzia said the very location of the meetings makes them "secret."

"How is the public going to go to a place where it costs you $100 to eat?" he said.  Police Lt. Frank Cronin and Assistant Fire Chief Peter Brown said they don't believe their respective boards are required to hold open meetings. Cronin stressed the sensitivity of medical information reviewed during discussions of disability pensions.

"Even if (the public) did come, the best part of the meeting would be in executive session," Cronin said.  Cronin, who has been on a board for 12 years, denied a request by The Advocate to attend a meeting. He also denied a request to review meeting minutes, citing the medical information that might be contained in the documents.

A review of the board's agendas for the past three years showed 35 meals at Bennett's, two at Morton's and three at other restaurants. The fund's financial adviser picks up the bill for the meals, Cronin said.  Brown, who has been on the fire pension board for 20 years, said it has received legal advice in the past informing the board that its meetings did not have to be open to the public.

Burton Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, said the pension boards are independent and it is not the Law Department's role to advise them.  But Mayor Dannel Malloy, who serves on the board of the largest pension fund, for classified employees, had some advice for the police and fire boards.

"As far as I'm concerned, they are public bodies and someone should file a Freedom of Information request," Malloy said. "They should be required to file their agendas and their minutes . . . just like everyone else."  Tarzia said the boards should not only be hauled before the FOI commission, but other agencies also should investigate their spending habits.

"The bottom line is whose interest are they watching out for -- the pensioners or themselves?" he said. 


 
FOI Covers E-Mail, Voice Mail

http://www.state.ct.us/foi/What's_New/What's_New_Page.htm#NEW EMAIL AND VOICEMAIL DECLARATORY RULING
March 21, 2003 editorial, Hartford Courant

When the state Freedom of Information Act took effect 28 years ago, few could have predicted the degree to which government business would one day be conducted by electronic means.

By using computer e-mails and telephone voice mails, officials can, in effect, skirt state FOI requirements involving public access to records and meetings.

In an important draft ruling, the FOI Commission recently concluded that e-mails and voice mails are public records; that they must be retained; and that the public should be able to see copies of such records. The draft also says that such communications could constitute a "meeting" under state law.

There are obvious obstacles involving cost and technology to fulfill those requirements, but the principle is sound. Government business must be conducted in public and people should not be excluded from the decision-making process.  The FOI commission offers an example in which three selectmen exchange e-mails and voice mails about a proposed legal settlement. Under the FOI draft, these communications would be public records. However, the draft says the exchange also would violate the law's open meeting requirements if the public was excluded.

Keeping copies of e-mails about government business should not be difficult. Storing voice mail records could be trickier, but still possible.  It seems unlikely that any agency will try to conduct official business exclusively by e-mail or voice mail. But with the rapid development of new electronic forms of communication, the possibilities for abuse escalate. For example, the draft notes that a quorum of a public agency's members could log into a computer "chat" room to discuss official business without informing the public.

The FOI Commission is on the right track. People ought to have access to government records, even when the information is contained in e-mails and voice mails. And official meetings should not be conducted out of public view.