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Reporter accuses City Hall officials of using stonewall tactics when complying with Freedom of Information requests

Cross post from HatCityBLOG

Lets just say that I’m happy another reporter has experienced my frustration with City Hall when it comes to the city of Danbury complying with the Freedom of Information Law.

Recently, my friend Andy Thibault had to deal with the hoops and red tape officials at City Hall put people through when it comes to the disclosure of PUBLIC documents.

New Haven Register:

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information law was once the pride of the nation. It has withstood numerous assaults by judges, legislators and other officials with plenty to hide.

Mandated by the will of Gov. Ella Grasso in 1975, the FOI law even has a beautiful preamble:

“The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know . . .”

We, the people, do not yield sovereignty to the agencies that supposedly serve us. We do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for us to know. How often do you think this principle of self government is violated on a daily basis when citizens request a viewing or copies of the public records they rightfully own?

It depends on factors including what municipal or state office you enter, the demeanor of the public servants and the leadership. Some people actually believe in public service. They tend to be hospitable, even pleasant and helpful. Others act as if you have three heads or are a scout for Martians who are about to vaporize the building. They are backed up by lawyers well-practiced in the delay, deny, delay game.

“Who are you?”

“Why do you want those records?”

“Why are you investigating that?”

These words were uttered to my colleague Jack Coraggio of the Litchfield County Times and me during a recent visit to Danbury City Hall.

In what seemed to be a practice and perhaps a policy of intimidation, we were told that even the most rudimentary requests must be presented in writing and reviewed by a lawyer. This gave me new appreciation for lawyers as creators of fiction. They love to dance around the requirement of the law that documents must be produced promptly. As a practical matter, this means documents must be produced immediately, unless the agency can prove that this would interfere with the normal course of business.
We were also told that “a public agency may have to review certain files prior to disclosure to ensure that no documents are being disclosed that could be considered exempt under the FOI statute, or that are privileged.”

Hmm. Why would privileged or exempt material be held in a public file? If that’s the case, then the small army of lawyers ensconced therein is providing ineffective assistance of counsel.

For most of the life of Connecticut’s FOI law, citizens could confidently state they were not required to give their name and that verbal requests for documents were sufficient.

Then came a faulty ruling in 2011 by the state’s Appellate Court that is being applied over broadly. The Appellate Court, in defiance of the FOI law’s plain meaning, upheld the denial by a zoning commission to produce public records following a verbal request at a meeting. So much for legislative intent: Some judges will shaft the public’s right to know whenever they get a chance.

The Appellate Court also failed to give customary and appropriate deference to the FOI Commission’s application of the law in this narrow and horrendous ruling. As a remedy, the FOI Commission has proposed a bill that would affirm the right of sovereign citizens to receive documents promptly via verbal requests. This is among many corrective measures that the Legislature should adopt forthwith.

If the governor and the legislature are truly serious about the public’s right to know, they could also beef up the fines. The current maximum fine is $1,000. That should be doubled, tripled or maybe even given another zero. Public servants who knowingly violate the public’s right to know should be personally accountable. Why does a hungry person who steals a loaf of bread get in more trouble than a public official who steals, hides or destroys public records?

The FOI law and its application have been under intense siege in the last decade. The public’s right to know will continue to deteriorate unless citizens and journalists demand adherence to the intent of the FOI law as stated in the preamble.

Anyone who has ever requested access to public documents at City Hall can appreciate Thibault’s frustration. Until someone challenges the ridiculous tactics used Mark Boughton’s ilk at City Hall whenever someone files a Freedom of Information request, the stonewall tactics will continue to go unchecked.