Open information taken seriously

Two weeks ago, this space was devoted to the benefits of awareness of open information law at the local level of government, in that North Canaan had hosted an informational seminar on the topic for area towns, presented by Town Attorney D. Randall DiBella. At that time, we promised a follow-up on statewide Freedom of Information (FOI) concerns, after having attended an FOI conference in Haddam sponsored by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on May 3. The commitment and involvement of all those statewide organizations should give us a clue as to the importance of open information and the public’s right to know. 

The featured topic of the May 3 conference was, “Privacy v. Transparency: Maintaining the Delicate Balance.” But that was just a starting point for discussion, because the questions that came from the attendees, including civic officials, agents of state government and journalists, revealed what their day-to-day concerns are and offered some experts in the law the chance to try to work out solutions for them. Thomas A. Hennick, the public education officer for the FOI Commission, moderated parts of the panel discussions. He made the point that while everyone should call the commission with questions at any time, they should also be aware that there can be more than one side to any situation, and all sides can be argued convincingly by reasonable and knowledgeable people. He said the first responses to FOI calls should not be seen as the final ones, and thorny problems can be given the attention they need with cases brought before the FOI Commissioners. Then, all parties can look at the facts together and come to the best agreed-upon conclusion in an open forum. 

Along these lines, a particularly engaging part of the conference put two attorneys on the stage to argue opposing sides of the same question, after which the audience was asked to vote on what they believed would be the correct outcome. If it seems that it should have been cut-and-dried, very apparent which side was right, that is not necessarily the case. There can be political purposes fighting the requirements of transparency, creating a push and pull that can be deceptively difficult to resolve. 

Some of the issues that came up across the board were: correct use and implementation of executive session in a meeting; handling of personnel matters, government contracts and bids; handling of criminal records and police body and dash cam video; background checks for job applicants; correct timing, costs and communication on large FOI requests that can span years and take many months to produce; handling of information on minors; the list could go on. 

While there are questions that cannot easily be answered on some FOI issues, there are others whose answers are clear in the law and must be respected. It is incumbent on all public officials to educate themselves on these matters, so they can do their jobs and be on the right side of the law. Seeing more than 250 people from all over the state come together at the May 3 conference to do just that gives hope that at the local and statewide level, at least, government workers still see themselves as public servants and are committed to a functioning democracy that serves its electorate well.