For new town officials, a workshop on Freedom of Information
CORNWALL — With election results counted and newly elected public officials taking their seats on various town boards and commissions, the town of Cornwall organized a forum to clarify Freedom of Information (FOI) regulations. The forum on Monday, Nov. 8, was held on Zoom, attracting 43 viewers from Cornwall as well as other area towns.
Presenters at the forum were Tom Hennick, state FOI Public Information Officer, and Perley Grimes of Cramer and Anderson, the Cornwall town attorney.
“FOI is the law in Connecticut,” Hennick said, since its enactment 46 years ago in the midst of Watergate. An “open government” law of transparency, the legislation passed unanimously, he noted.
“However, much is open to interpretation,” Hennick added, dividing his comments into two subjects: access to public meetings and access to public records.
Hennick said that FOI is not about public officials being required to answer questions; rather it is about providing access for the public to be able to view meetings.
“All work must be done in public,” he explained.
Special versus regular
There are three types of board and commission meetings. A regular meeting has an agenda that is posted in advance, although items may be added to that agenda at the discretion of the board.
A second meeting type is a special meeting scheduled for a specific purpose. That agenda cannot be added to.
The third type is a rare emergency meeting, and it is generally discouraged unless it is really dealing with some unforeseen event.
FOI does not specifically grant anyone the right to speak at a public meeting, Hennick said. The public comment aspect is at the discretion of the board.
While executive sessions are used for specific purposes, no votes may be taken during those closed-door sessions, which public and press are not allowed to attend. The vote must be taken in public after the executive session.
Anna Timell, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), asked about regulations in draft form and the point at which they should be shared publicly. Hennick replied that it is not necessary to share an early draft that will undergo major revision, but once the proposed regulation reaches a stage where the changes are minor tweaks, then the document should be available for the public to see.
A few residents asked about rules governing the taking and keeping of minutes.
With 30 years of experience as the town attorney, Perley Grimes set about clarifying issues and concerns that have cropped up repeatedly over the years.
Focusing at first on the P&Z, Grimes stressed the importance of knowing the regulations and bringing a copy of the full set to each meeting for reference. P&Z regulations inform about what is allowed, but not necessarily what is prohibited, he said.
The Town Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) serves as the source of the regulations, but it does not have the force of law, Grimes noted.
Problem areas for public officials arise in ex parte conversations or communications, Grimes said, defined as contact between or among commission members outside of meetings.
Even private conversations outside of the regular meetings can be problematic for a public official. Emails, particularly in these months of working from home, can become part of the public record and therefore, the public can obtain copies of that correspondence if it concerns public business.
A conflict of interest is to be avoided where a board member has a personal or financial interest in matters being discussed. Another problem area is defined as bias or prejudice, where a board member has (even inadvertently) stated an opinion or prejudged the issue before hearing all public opinion.
Public opinion should be considered productive and helpful.
“The more public involvement in the community, the healthier the community,” Grimes added.
Resident Joanne Wojtusiak expressed frustration with the removal of public comment from the agenda at P&Z meetings.
“Citizens are not allowed to interact with the P&Z,” she said, acknowledging that letters can be submitted through the Land Use office at Town Hall, but she said that responses are slow. She urged that there be more dialogue.
If elected town officials and members of boards and commissions have questions about FOI, Hennick invites a phone call to his office at 860-566-5682.