Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act has been on the books for nearly 40 years. A couple of generations of public servants have been operating under its provisions. Yet after decades of illumination by the state’s Sunshine Laws, our elected and appointed representatives in government continue to wander into the shadows, where they stumble over provisions of the act that should be well known to everyone by now.
As a result of one such stumble late last year, a public education officer for the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) was in town September 29 to conduct a workshop for local officials, reminding them of their obligations under the law, and answering any questions they might have. While the law is lengthy with many provisions, it is perfectly clear on issues that seem to cause local boards and commissions the most trouble: giving proper notice of public meetings, including warnings and reasons for when those meetings will be closed for private discussion; and the narrow scope of topics suitable for discussion in these “executive sessions.”
The September 29 session was ordered by the FOIC in response to a citizen complaint about one such closed session involving four local boards considering the Sandy Hook School project on December 9, 2013. The published warning of the executive session was too vague, according to the commission. So after brushing up on their responsibilities for posting agendas and for keeping public discussions public on Monday last week, Newtown’s local officials should be able to avoid similar sloppy and incorrect applications of the law for some time to come. Right?
Fast forward 24 hours. The members of the Board of Education, three of whom, including the chairman, attended the FOIC workshop the previous evening, met on September 30 and convened an executive session that was not warned in their posted agenda for the meeting. Additionally, they closed the session ostensibly for “reflection” on standards set by the board for self-assessment – standards that were initially described and set for public discussion in the agenda for the special meeting. Note: this closed session was not for an evaluation of an employee nor apparently for the actual self-assessment of the school board, but for a reflection on the standards for board self-assessment. It was not a discussion of safety and security measures, it was a reflection on how school officials can better communicate about safety and security issues. These topics are clearly not covered in the FOI Act’s exemptions for executive sessions.
It is ironic that the apparent underlying theme of discussion in the school board’s closed session was better communication. The board’s awkward stumble from transparency to opacity was based on a sloppy interpretation of clear language in the Freedom of Information Act based on an inadvertent, or willful, misreading of the language in their own agenda. Each misstep was antithetical to better communication. It was a discussion that would have benefited the public to hear. Coming so close on the heels of the September 29 FOI workshop, it was the equivalent of taking a pop quiz right after a lesson — and failing. We only wish that the board members had paid closer attention to their FOI lessons and had taken greater care in educating themselves on the public’s right to know.