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A refresher in Freedom of Information laws

 

KENT — As new members of boards and commissions step into place in area towns, a refresher session on Connecticut’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws was offered on Zoom on Wednesday, Jan. 5.

The session was hosted by the town of Kent.

Leading the workshop were state FOI Commission Public Information Officer Tom Hennick and Kent Town Attorney Randy DiBella.

“It’s about access,” Hennick explained. The FOI regulations ensure access to public meetings and access to public records.

Anytime a board, a committee or even a subcommittee gathers, advance notice must be issued, an agenda posted, and meeting minutes produced and posted promptly, Hennick said.

There are three types of meetings, he said. They are regular, special and emergency — the latter used only for true emergencies, where  lives  of area residents might be endangered if action is not taken.

Regular meetings are pre-scheduled, pre-announced and must have agendas posted in advance. If such meetings are to be virtual or hybrid, it is recommended that the log-in link be included on the posted agenda to ensure convenient public access, Hennick said. The agenda of a regular meeting can be amended by vote during the meeting, he added.

Special meetings are pre-announced but have a fixed agenda for the special purpose only; the agenda can not be amended.

Clearing up a common misconception, Hennick said, “The Freedom of Information Act does not guarantee the public the right to speak at a meeting.” The individual board or commission has the right to control its own meeting, setting rules for public comment.

DiBella added that the FOI law was nicknamed “the sunshine act.” But, speaking to the officials, he said, “It’s your meeting where you are conducting public business.”

Executive sessions are permitted within meetings for only four purposes, Hennick said. Those purposes include personnel matters (with specific details about the nature of the personnel matter, without including the employee’s name, but rather some descriptive term posted in advance); pending claims or litigation; security matters; or property transaction negotiations.

No votes can be taken on any matter during Executive Session, Hennick cautioned. All votes are to be public.

About access to public records, Hennick said, “If it’s created doing town-related business, it’s public. Think of everything as being a public record.”

DiBella echoed, “Everything is a public record. When you receive an inquiry from anyone, it is public record.”  He also cautioned strongly against taking any notes during an Executive Session, as such notes may be classified as a public document.

Serving his first term as a member of the Kent Board of Selectmen, Glenn Sanchez asked for clarification of the rules for recusal. He was told that if an official recuses, it is permissible to remain in the meeting to hear discussion while not participating in that discussion or voting in the matter.

Resident Wendy Murphy sought a statewide standard to guide public participation, but DiBella countered that each of the state’s 169 towns has jurisdiction over its own management policies.

Noting that the FOI Commission welcomes calls from the public seeking answers to FOI concerns, Hennick invited residents to call his office as questions arise.

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