24 March 2008

Mayor, Council At Odds Over FOI Again

Any person denied the right to inspect or copy records under section 1-210 or wrongfully denied the right to attend any meeting of a public agency or denied any other right conferred by the Freedom of Information Act may appeal therefrom to the Freedom of Information Commission, by filing a notice of appeal with said commission.

Excerpt from Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act

The public's right to know has become a surprisingly controversial issue since last November's municipal election, putting the Republican Mayor at odds with the Democratic City Council.

In December, the Council adopted an ordinance without the Mayor's signature that requires city departments to release records and information in a timely manner when requested to do so by members of the Common Council. The ordinance apparently stemmed from some foot dragging on information access at City Hall. In one instance, Democrats sought information for legislators researching data for a bill that would create a Health Care Partnership Act, enabling cities to join the state health insurance pool and reduce insurance costs. When a legislative aide working for House Majority Leader Chris Donovan (D-Meriden) asked the city Finance Department about the number of city employees and health premium costs he was promptly turned down and told the request would have to be approved by the Mayor.

In January, Republican Town Chair Paul Carver, perhaps in retaliation for the FOI ordinance, filed a formal complaint with the state commission contending that Council Majority Leader Mike Trueworthy did not identify a nominee to the Mattabasett District Commission on a meeting agenda despite the posting of the vacancy on the agenda. Democrats have called Carver's complaint "frivolous." The Commission has yet to take up the complaint amid predictions from Democrats that Carver's complaint will be quickly dismissed.

This month a second ordinance has been proposed by Ward 4 Councillor Phil Sherwood (Photo) that would essentially establish a local Freedom of Information act. The FOI law and the 37-year-old state FOI Commission is the arbiter of all complaints at the local and state level. But Sherwood and others on the Council feel that open meetings and access to public records need to be clearly spelled out at the local level.

The Stewart Administration didn't help itself when the Board of Finance and Taxation, deliberating over the city budget, kicked New Britain Herald Reporter Rick Guinness out of its meeting. The newspaper has responded in kind, according to a march 24th Herald story:

In the past month, elected and appointed city officials, including Mayor Timothy Stewart, have barred access to public meetings, prompting The Herald to file complaints with the Freedom of Information Commission. The city must send a city attorney to Hartford, at taxpayer expense, to justify the actions.

These recent actions are raising the possibility that the Stewart administration is skirting if not violating the spirit and letter of Freedom of Information laws. Stewart and his Council minority leader, Lou Salvio, are likely to argue that such an ordinance is unnecessary at the local level. Salvio, arguing against the first FOI ordinance, claimed that he did not have any difficulty obtaining the information he needed. Democrats, however, say that is the point. Republicans, they say, are playing a partisan game even when it comes to public access to data and open doors at public meetings.

While the state FOI Commission has ultimate jurisdiction and enforcement power, it has been very supportive of some form of local FOI oversight since a 1999 statewide survey found "disappointing results" of compliance with the FOI Act by local government.

The state Commission, in fact, has adopted a local "model" ordinance that calls for establishing a municipal FOI Advisory Board -- not quite a model FOI ordinance but a move designed to reduce the small commission's large caseload.

Colleen M. Murphy, the FOI Commission's Executive Director and General Counsel, advocated for a local advisory group in an article "Freedom of Information Advisory Boards Will Benefit Citizens and Public Officials Alike":
"Why should municipalities take such a step? The answer is simple: the creation of these advisory boards will go a long way toward resolving FOI questions well before they turn into full-blown disputes. The function of the municipal advisory board is to act as a liaison, to citizens and public officials, as well as to the FOI Commission. Members of advisory boards will be trained in the application of the FOI Act to issues of local concern

Murphy, making her case for municipal advisory groups, said they would "demonstrate a municipality's commitment to the concept of open government."

City Councillor Sherwood appears to be making the same argument in calling for what would amount to a municipal Freedom of Information Act if the ordinance to be considered by the City Council is adopted.

Stewart may charge that the open government ordinance is just another example of "partisan sniping" at his administration and that it's his prerogative to maintain control over the flow of information at City Hall. But even a mayor in the strongest of strong-mayor forms of government has to realize at some point that withholding publc records and closing the door on open meetings is the wrong way to go.