Open information is the law

Everyone likes to know what’s going on. That urge does not change no matter our time and place in life: as children in school or on the playground, as teens who interact in whole different ways, and as young and older adults. It’s generally up to us to go out of our way to find out anything that’s happening in our sphere that could affect our lives. When it comes to our government, though, that urge needs to be addressed by our civic leaders in a very real way, particularly in Connecticut. Our Freedom of Information Act is strong and well-defined, even (or really, especially) after many challenges to it since its inception in 1975. 

The business of government must be done in the open, with meetings noticed according to the law so the public can attend. A record of those meetings must be available to the public in the form of minutes within seven days of the event, and any votes within 48 hours. Documents relating to any of our public agencies and institutions must be available to anyone who requests them, within a reasonable and agreed-upon period of time.

These and other facts about open information were put out there for everyone who attended an informational session conducted by North Canaan Town Attorney D. Randall DiBella on Tuesday, April 23 (see story by reporter Leila Hawken this week) at the Town Hall. Those who attended were mainly regional town officials and the local press. Those officials were engaged with DiBella and their fellow public servants, enthusiastically discussing real-life situations and the best ways to handle them correctly.

DiBella, who has argued many Freedom of Information cases in court, carefully made the point that when complaints are made formally on open information  missteps or negligence, they are usually the result of simple, inadvertent errors. That sense certainly came across listening to the town officials gathered in North Canaan. They all clearly wanted to do the right thing; they just wanted to be sure they understood what the right thing was.

It is important that citizens and officials come at open government issues with the same approach of mutual trust to start, wanting to do the right thing in order to be sure they are handling all the information they have access to responsibly. No officials, whether at municipalities, or in education, or law enforcement, should doubt that it is part of their jobs to reveal to those who request it the details of the way they serve the public. 

And DiBella was clear that the standard should be for any official to put the information out there for those who want and need it. It’s the only way we can understand what is really going on around us, as well as our place in it all. Those who serve the taxpayers need to remember they are accountable to them for their actions on the job. 

This week, there will be a statewide Freedom of Information Conference sponsored by three state open government organizations and the state Society of Professional Journalists. There, civic officials from all over the state will gather to share the challenges they face and find solutions. Look for a follow-up piece here to learn about their greatest concerns.