Area Officials Attend FOI Workshop
With Election Day in the rear-view mirror and most town officials sworn in and seated for their current terms on local boards and commissions, a Freedom Of Information (FOI) workshop was conducted January 12 at Newtown Community Center to help familiarize officials new and old on state laws related to open meetings and access to government information. The state’s FOI Commission conducts workshops around the state to help citizens and officials understand their rights and obligations under the FOI Act.
Among the roughly 25 officials who attended the workshop were Legislative Council Chairman Jeff Capeci and Selectman Ed Schierloh, along with officials from neighboring towns such as Bethel and Brookfield.
Thomas Hennick, the FOI Commission public information officer, said that Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “guarantees all citizens the right to have access to public meetings and public documents.” Hennick said he has served on a board himself for 10 years and was chair of that board for five years. He has currently been serving for the last five years on his own town’s board of selectmen.
Hennick stated that the FOIA is 47 years old, “in the middle” of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“Things were done clandestinely, in secret,” said Hennick.
Hennick said Ella Grasso, prior to running for governor of Connecticut, decided “the first thing she would do is create an open government law.” Grasso ran and won, and kept her promise to make an open government law the first thing she did. She promised and received unanimous support for the measure in both the Connecticut House of Representatives and the Connecticut Senate — making Connecticut the first US State to codify a Freedom of Information Commission.
“There was not a single no vote in the House or Senate,” said Hennick. “That’s how important it was then, and how important it remains today.”
Hennick offered clarification that the FOIA only guarantees residents access to information from Connecticut state and municipal governments; the Commission itself does not have information and is “not an information center.” He said he sometimes receives calls from residents asking for land use records, or Social Security information, but the Commission does not have any of that.
“People think we have it all sitting in a giant vault,” Hennick said.
The Commission’s actual role is to help those seeking information get information from the places that do have that information.
“If people believe there has been an FOI violation, they come to the commission,” said Hennick. “It’s not about answering people’s questions. They have the right to know, but they have to do the work; go to the meeting or find the records.”
Preventing FOI Violations
As part of that, another goal of the FOI Commission is helping municipal boards, commissions, and government agencies not violate the FOIA in the first place.
Hennick said that a meeting is “any communication of a quorum of a public agency,” which includes e-mails between a quorum of its members. A quorum is, according to Oxford Languages, “the minimum number of members of an assembly or society that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of that meeting valid.”
“If you are going to meet and conduct board business, it’s a meeting,” said Hennick. “Make sure it is noticed, make sure there are minutes.”
Hennick discouraged public officials from discussing board business informally.
“The law requires a board to do the bulk of its work in the public forum,” Hennick said, and that includes not only a quorum of the board, but also any subcommittees or other groups formed by the board. “I used to tell people that even if they don’t have a quorum, they are in danger of having a meeting. I want you to be smart about doing as much business in public as you can.”
Hennick said there are three types of meetings: A regular meeting, which is a normally scheduled meeting on fixed dates of the month; a special meeting, which is a meeting that is called when not normally scheduled to meet; and an emergency meeting, which can be called with no notice but must meet stringent requirements to use.
At regular meetings, items may be added to the agenda, but at a special meeting, only items on the agenda may be discussed.
“Otherwise, regular and special meetings are the same,” said Hennick.
Hennick strongly discouraged the attending officials from calling emergency meetings, as the law “did not envision” many reasons to use them.
“What people would perceive as an emergency is not so under the law,” said Hennick.
Hennick said that, for instance, forgetting about a Monday holiday that prevents filing an agenda 24 hours ahead of the meeting is not a valid reason to call an emergency meeting.
“Forgetting is not an emergency,” said Hennick.
Hennick gave an anecdote of what happened when Ridgefield tried to terminate its assistant fire chief, Nick Gaeta, in a Saturday emergency meeting in 2006. The meeting was not properly noticed and called to release the chief from employment.
The chief filed a complaint with the FOI Commission over whether the meeting was proper and it went to court. The matter was in the courts for several years and went to the Connecticut Supreme Court. When Gaeta won at the end, he found himself owed five years of back pay.
Hennick noted the town could have saved itself the back pay if it had scheduled another meeting to fire the chief, but it “stuck to its guns” that its meeting was proper.
“If you can avoid a situation like this, you’re always better off,” said Hennick.
‘Access For Everyone’
Hennick said the FOI Commission receives 700-800 complaints per year, many of which must be adjudicated. Hennick also discussed remote meetings and hybrid meetings.
“The key is access for everyone,” said Hennick.
If a meeting is entirely virtual, as has become more prevalent since the pandemic, there must be a recording of the meeting that must go online within seven days, and must be made available to the public for at least 45 days. Some officials have even come to prefer virtual meetings since more people attend since they don’t have to leave their homes to see the meeting. However, towns must provide a way for people without computer access to be able to watch the meetings.
Hennick addressed Zoom bombing, a practice in which people come into a Zoom meeting, which is a meeting conducted through the popular Zoom.com, and post inappropriate content or say racial epithets or the like.
“You have the right to shut that down, by muting them or kicking them out of the meeting,” Hennick told the officials. “You have the right to have an orderly meeting.”
Submitted letters to a meeting must be placed in the record of the meeting, but do not have to be read aloud, Hennick said.
One area town officials can get themselves into trouble over is executive session. An executive session is a portion of a meeting that the public may be excluded from, but can only be used for “five specific reasons,” and any votes taken cannot be done in executive session.
“Never vote behind closed doors,” said Hennick. “Votes must be in public so that everyone can see who voted for what.”
The five reasons are: Personnel matters, to discuss the performance or hiring of employees; pending litigation, to discuss case strategy; security matters, such as at schools or cyber security; conversations about buying or selling property; and conversation about documents that are exempt from disclosure, such as bid documents, union contracts ,and legal opinions before the respective matters are settled. Once they are settled the documents must be disclosed.
There are some circumstances where a board can meet and not have it count as a meeting. The first is collective bargaining strategy sessions for union contracts, and the second is executive level search committees, for personnel searches for positions such as police chief and fire chief. The Newtown Police Commission has recently formed an executive search committee to hire a police chief following the announced departure of Police Chief James Viadero.
As to public records, everything members of a board commission have, use, or take in are matters of public record. If a board member receives an e-mail with town information, that e-mail is a matter of public record and may be requested by the public through FOI. There are certain exemptions, such as legal documents and personnel records. Additionally, most town documents are public records, again, with the same exemptions.
Hennick said if a town receives a request for public records, it must respond within four days. If information is requested in writing, a town can charge 50 cents per page, but there is no fee for electronic records.
Reporter Jim Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.