Editorial: Reopening Police Records Was Blow Against Secrecy – Hartford Courant

This was one legislative action taken in the dark of night that was welcome. At about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, the final day of the 2015 session, the state Senate gave its unanimous consent to a compromise bill that restores much of the public access to police arrest records lost last year in a brutal state Supreme Court ruling.

It was an important — and one of the few — victories for the cause of freedom of information in Connecticut this year.

In the 2014 court decision, the justices severely limited the amount of information that police are required to disclose about arrests to so-called blotter information (name, address, the crime charged, etc.) and an incident report or a press release, neither of which has to say much.

Police would not have to disclose such vital information as footage from body cameras, for example.

The bill that passed early Wednesday morning was a response to the court.

As originally written, it would have required that all arrest records be open to the public unless they are exempted for reasons already covered by law, such as to protect the identity of witnesses. But the bill — HB 6750 — suffered a near-death experience in the judiciary committee only a month ago. The committee restored the court’s meager access requirements.

Much, but not all, of the public access to police records lost in the court decision was regained through negotiations between the office of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Still, it was a red-letter day for advocates of open, accessible government. Advocates can try again next year to recapture the rest.

Disclosure of arrest records lets the public police the police, the most powerful of public agencies — an all-important attribute of a free society.

The state House also approved the compromise unanimously. The bill awaits Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s signature. He should sign it.

FOI Commission: State Police Must Turn Over Lanzas’ Papers – Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — State police must make available to the public personal documents seized from Adam Lanza’s house during the course of the investigation into the 2012 killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission unanimously ruled Wednesday.

The ruling came as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request from The Courant seeking copies of documents mentioned in the state police’s report into the massacre but never made available to the public. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the state’s police force, has blocked The Courant’s efforts to obtain those documents since January 2014.

William Fish, the attorney representing The Courant, argued that the documents, which include a comic book written by Lanza titled “The Big Book of Granny,” were public records in part because of the state’s great expense related to the investigation and the worldwide media coverage that the shooting triggered.

“To stand in front of this commission and suggest that these records don’t pertain to the public’s interest is simply wrong,” Fish said.

Steven M. Barry, the attorney representing the state at the hearing, said the items were not public records because they were personal property of the Lanzas seized by warrant during the course of the investigation.

“These items are not a public record, they are seized property,” Barry said.

Barry said state police had an obligation to restrict access to personal property in such instances until either the courts directed them what to do with the items or the owner made a claim on them.

“This would turn the law enforcement exemption on its head if once [evidence] came into possession of state police that item was suddenly a public document,” Barry said.

Fish said that Barry was using the claim that the items were evidence as a blanket exception to circumvent the FOI statute because the state police had concluded the investigation into the shootings, Adam Lanza had taken his own life and the case was never going to wind up in court.

“The law enforcement exemption does not apply because the perpetrator is dead and there will be no prosecution,” he said.

When FOI Commissioner Jonathan Einhorn questioned Barry further on this interpretation of the statute, he said it was the state police’s position that it could hold evidence indefinitely in such circumstances.

“It’s the obligation of the police to sort of hold this for the owner,” Barry said.

Einhorn then questioned whether state police were being “inconsistent” in their interpretation of what was and wasn’t a public document.

“The police thought to disclose this already to the public,” Einhorn noted.

Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer who ruled in The Courant’s favor, noted in her report that the supervisor of the department’s legal affairs unit had not even looked at the documents that The Courant was seeking.

“Although she had not looked at the requested documents, she believed that some of the documents might be exempt from disclosure,” Ross wrote.

The commission unanimously voted to uphold Ross’ report without any debate.

Barry declined to comment after the hearing on the commission’s ruling. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection did not immediately comment on the decision Wednesday afternoon.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, The Courant had not received the requested documents. The state has 30 days to appeal.

Ackley attorney charges city held illegal meeting about her – The Day

By Colin A. Young

New London — An attorney representing suspended Police Chief Margaret Ackley on Wednesday filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission alleging that the City Council “held an illegal and secret meeting” last month to discuss the city’s investigation of Ackley’s conduct as chief.

“The meeting was held to create and implement a plan to hire an independent investigator to investigate alleged claims of inappropriate conduct made by Mayor Daryl J. Finizio,” Leon Rosenblatt, Ackley’s attorney, wrote in the complaint.

During the meeting in question, held Feb. 4, the City Council met behind closed doors to discuss its strategy to move forward with both the investigation of Ackley and the pending lawsuit Ackley filed against the city in June 2013.

Risk Manager Paul Gills had made a recommendation “relative to how the city is proceeding in relation to the investigation,” Finizio told the council at a previous meeting, and wanted to discuss it with the City Council in executive session.

The council’s agenda included a motion to enter executive session to “discuss the status of pending litigation, namely Margaret Ackley V. City of New London, et al. … strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation.”

Rosenblatt said it would have been “perfectly fine” had the council only discussed the lawsuit Ackley filed against the city, but he said the investigation into Ackley’s conduct pertains to Finizio’s suspension of the chief and not to the lawsuit.

“When I saw (the agenda item), I thought it was perfectly kosher because there is in fact a settlement conference coming up in the litigation, and they certainly have the right to go into executive session to discuss anything about the settlement conference,” he said. “Evidently, they went beyond that and started talking about hiring a person to do an investigation that has nothing to do with the litigation … and apparently agreed on who it was going to be and how much they were going to pay her.”

After the executive session, City Council President Wade A. Hyslop announced that no motions had been made and no votes taken behind closed doors, according to the minutes from that meeting.

City Attorney Jeffrey T. Londregan, who attended the executive session on Feb. 4, said Wednesday afternoon he had not seen the complaint filed by Rosenblatt and declined to comment specifically on it.

“In my opinion, any discussions that took place during that executive session were within the purview of what was posted,” Londregan said.

At a meeting two weeks later, the council approved spending up to $20,000 to hire attorney Kathleen Eldergill of the Manchester-based law firm Beck Eldergill to begin an “independent personnel investigation” of Ackley’s alleged misconduct as police chief.

In the complaint, Rosenblatt alleges that Ackley had, and was denied, the right to participate in the executive session and request that the meeting be held in public session. The complaint requests that the Freedom of Information Commission order the City Council to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and laws regarding executive session, and to declare void any action taken by the council during an “illegal and secret” meeting.

“This absolutely has to be done in public,” Rosenblatt said. “The taxpayers of New London have a right to know when their leaders are throwing away money.”

On July 31, Finizio suspended Ackley, with pay, “pending the outcome of an investigation into her conduct as chief.” Finizio said he suspended Ackley because of allegations that she selectively targeted union leaders for discipline, withheld information about the public safety requirements for the Sailfest festival and deliberately failed to assign officers to Ocean Beach Park on the weekend of July 4 “in order to make a political budgetary point.”


Twitter: @ColinAYoung

Stamford considers virtual attendance at meetings – Stamford Advocate

Mayor asks reps to consider e-attendance

STAMFORD — The Board of Representatives wants to know if they can phone it in – literally.

At Mayor David Martin‘s prodding, a board committee began research in December on electronic attendance at meetings of the city’s legislative boards and commissions.

There’s nothing in state law that says remote attendance can’t be done, and the state’s Freedom of Information Commission is in agreement — presuming a public board or commission does its business in a way that’s accessible to the public itself, it does not matter if it meets by phone, by video or in person.

Whether it should be done, though, is a matter of opinion, both in Stamford and around the state and country.

Some Stamford boards have been willing theoretically to use telecommunications so that experts can give advice or testimony or so board members can listen in, but it seems as though they have yet to vote remotely.

“I think we may have had a couple times when somebody called in and was on a conference call just to listen,” said Board of Finance Chairman John Louizos. “There’s no vote, it’s more for hearing the presentation before we vote on the budget.”

For example, if the board needed to hear from an expert on a certain subject who was located in Massachusetts a video presentation could avoid the time and expense for that person to come to Stamford, Louizos said.

“Certainly I’d look favorably upon that,” he said.

Land Use Bureau Chief Norman Cole said the boards for planning and zoning take a harder line.

“We do it the old-fashioned way,” he said.

The boards provide accommodations to people who have hearing problems or other impairments, and the public meetings are videotaped, but that’s it. “Beyond that, there’s no way that people can participate in meetings without physically being there,” Cole said.

When experts speak to the boards, they’re usually representing applicants who pay them to appear, so having them show up in person is neither an inconvenience or expense to the city, he said.

“It’s preferable to sit in the same room, get the vibes of your fellow board member, look them in the eye,” said Cole.

But he conceded that it was possible that changing ways of doing business and conducting government could change that.

The Board of Education is waiting for a cue from the city as to whether virtual meeting attendance might happen, spokeswoman Sharon Beadle said.

“We really come under the city when it comes to tech initiatives, so we are really waiting to see what happens with the meetings of the Board of Representatives,” Beadle said.

Health Commission administrative staff member Pamela Scott said that body had also begun looking into whether electronic attendance is feasible.

Other cities and states have looked into allowing it.

New Haven city law doesn’t have any provisions that allow for virtual voting or attendance, but none that prohibit it, either. That city has taken expert testimony from out of state electronically in the past, city officials said.

Bridgeport legislators have called in to committee meetings, according to spokesman Brett Broesder, but not to full board meetings, as far as he could immediately recall.

Around the country, some states forbid remote attendance outright, others allow it and some only have provisions that enforce electronic communications’ scrutiny under their respective freedom of information laws.

Connecticut FOI law makes reference to meetings of public entities, with a quorum, conducted via electronic equipment, and the statute does not forbid the practice.

“They don’t do it as a matter of course, but I think it helps some groups that have a quorum issue,” said Thomas Hennick, a public education officer for the FOI commission.

Hawaii and Idaho explicitly permitted public meetings by electronic communication, according to information compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Minnesota and New Hampshire also clearly allow remote meetings of public bodies.

Several other states make it clear in their laws that electronic correspondence — not just electronic meetings — are subject to their various sunshine laws, but do not necessarily encourage electronic meetings, according to RCFP’s data.

At least two states, Oklahoma and Virginia, forbade the practice.

Hennick said that, in Connecticut, there have not been any specific complaints about electronic attendance, although he has fielded some calls asking if the practice is allowed.

“I haven’t seen it as an avoidance behavior — I see it as a way for people to have their meetings come through,” said Hennick. “There are some towns that don’t like that, and set their rules that say you have to be there.”

Stamford’s research into whether and how to allow it is still in its early stages, said Elise Coleman, who-chairs the Legislative and Rules Committee.

alex.gecan@scni.com; (203) 964-2263; @stunati0201

Our View: Government accountability starts with openness – The Bulletin

Posted Nov. 24, 2014 @ 2:01 am

Prior to the election, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information asked candidates running for state office to sign a pledge in support of open government. With little fanfare, and waiting to after the election, we learned last week that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the pledge on Wednesday.

Malloy joins state Comptroller Kevin Lembo and a handful of legislators – 38 candidates in total with Malloy – to sign the pledge.

We are extremely disappointed that none of the incumbent legislators from Eastern Connecticut who won re-election signed. Only three candidates from the region did: Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, Jonathan Cesolini of Killingly, the Republican challenger in the 44th Assembly District, and state Sen.-elect Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. Wright and Cesolini were defeated.

We applaud the governor for taking this step and we hope that his decision might influence others into following suit. Far too many legislators and Constitutional officers declined to sign, which does not bode well for openness and transparency in government.

Among one of the additional steps we would urge the governor to consider is restoring the independence of the State Freedom of Information Commission which was weakened when it and other watchdog groups were consolidated and their funding cut. Shrinking and streamlining government are worthy efforts but not the expense of serving citizens.

The two-part pledge that candidates were asked to sign includes a promise to oppose any effort to further weakened the Freedom of Information Commission and to “require debate at public hearing” before any legislation or administrative action is taken that would “weaken or impair the state FOI law.”

That second part reflects the provision of the state Constitution that requires “debates of each (legislative) house shall be public, except on such occasions as in the opinion of the house may require secrecy.”

Discussing issues out of the public view is necessary at times, but good government demands it be held to a minimum.

That’s our opinion. We’d like to hear yours. Email us your thoughts at letters@norwichbulletin.com.

The Day – Connecticut needs to repair weakened FOI law | News from southeastern Connecticut

By Paul Choiniere

The Connecticut General Assembly needs to get to work in 2015 to repair a state Freedom of Information Act that shows too much deference to government institutions at the expense of citizens.

Last week the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the FOI Act only requires police to provide minimal information about an arrest – “name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest and the offense for which the person was arrested.”

For 20 years involving multiple decisions, the FOI Commission had interpreted the Act far differently, requiring police, if requested, to release reports and other records concerning arrests unless they could make the case that release of the information would interfere with an investigation or was exempt under other provisions of the FOI Act.

However, despite this history, the Supreme Court found no such requirement in the FOI law as written. It is now up to the legislature to fix the FOI Act, by making it clear police reports surrounding arrests are public documents unless police can make the case for an exemption, such as interfering with an investigation. In a free society, police should not be withholding details about why they arrest and incarcerate citizens.

However, this is not the only part of the law that needs fixing. A provision in the FOI Act inserted at the behest of organized labor has led to a “just say no” attitude among many town attorneys and municipal officials when it comes to accessing employee records. This leads to long delays in accessing information that is indisputably public.

The law states that when a public agency receives a request to inspect “records contained in any of its employees’ personnel or medical files and similar files and the agency reasonably believes that the disclosure of such records would legally constitute an invasion of privacy, the agency shall immediately notify” the employee or employees.

It goes on to say that if the employee objects, “the agency shall not disclose the requested records unless ordered … by the Freedom of Information Commission,” a process that can take many months, stretching in some cases to a year or more.

While this employee protection provision may appear reasonable, town attorneys wrongly interpret it to require them to notify employees in every instance when a record is requested and give them the chance to object, even if there is no reasonable expectation of an invasion of privacy. Not surprisingly, in most every instance the employee does object to release, delaying access to documents.

In a case in Stonington, The Day sought access to documents involving the disciplinary actions taken against a Stonington Highway Department employee. Though there was nothing remotely private involved – the discipline involved the actions of a public employee in his public job – the town administration gave the worker his chance to object, and he did, delaying release of documents for a year.

It turned out to be a case of workplace violence. The employee had threated a fellow worker, even brandishing a knife. The public’s interest in knowing what happened and how town officials handled it was clear, yet disclosure of the facts was delayed.

The legislature needs to tighten the law to make clear that public employee records are presumed open, unless medical information or other private matters are involved. This is very seldom the case when the records involve the actions of public employees. As things now stand, government employees have too much power to block public access to records.

Finally, I would urge a change in the law to provide for expedited decisions when a document is obviously public. Grievances filed by public unions are, for example, public records. It is settled law. However, a public official can stall release of these public records by simply saying “no,” forcing a prolonged evidentiary gathering and hearing process by the FOI Commission, which faces backlogs.

When facts are not in dispute and records are unarguably public, the FOI Commission needs a mechanism to act quickly in ordering disclosure. Current provisions are inadequate in that regard.

Connecticut was a leader in passing its open-government law, but layers of exemptions to the law have weakened it. It is time for Connecticut to start leading again by giving its FOI law more teeth.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


Tighter Rules OK’d On Public’s Access To Crime Records – Courant.com

HARTFORD — The stage is set for a showdown at the General Assembly on crime victim privacy and the public’s right to know.


On Tuesday, the legislature’s judiciary committee approved a bill that would establish new restrictions on the public’s ability to access police records such as 911 tapes and crime scene photos. It also would prohibit the release of photographs of child murder victims.

In urging his colleagues to back the bill, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said it strikes the right balance. The measure mirrors the recommendations of a legislative task force formed last year to study issues of privacy versus disclosure, after some families of victims killed in the 2012 Newtown school…Click here to continue reading.