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Freedom of information laws important for all in Connecticut

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission held its annual conference last week in Rocky Hill. It was a day-long event and gathered officials from towns and cities all over the state, from town clerks to city I/T directors, as well as lawyers, journalists and more. There were more than 100 attendees, in addition to panelists and speakers, all of whom were there to learn more about the requirements of the state’s freedom of information (FOI) laws and the best ways in which to uphold them.

These laws haven’t been around forever, not quite 35 years in Connecticut. They were composed at a time, right after the Watergate scandal and the disgrace of a president in Washington, D.C., when citizens began to take seriously the challenge of providing oversight to try to keep elected government officials on the straight and narrow. Also, in Connecticut, the Peter Reilly case, from 1973 on through the ‘70s, brought to light secrecy within the court system and the difficulties involved with obtaining state police records at the time.

Connecticut was one of the first states to create a freedom of information law with real teeth, and at the same time started up an agency maintained by state funds in order to give those citizens with doubts about any official conduct a way to question it and resolve it. The law replaced very toothless Right to Know legislation which had previously been on the books.

If there was a town clerk withholding documents from any citizen who had the right to view them, that clerk would be accountable through the freedom of information law. If there was a town board neglecting to post notices of its monthly meetings, alert citizens had a path to follow to have that board abide by the state’s meeting laws. A complaint to the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford would result in a hearing and action on the outcome.

Today, the challenges faced by public officials include making minutes of meetings available on municipal Web sites as well as the handling of electronic files, whether by e-mail, text messaging or twittering. If such electronic files reflect discussion by a quorum of any board or commission, they should be available for public viewing. Otherwise, especially if any decisions were made through such communication, the public’s business is being done in secret, and that is unacceptable in a democracy.

Those who pushed for Freedom of Information laws those decades ago, including this newspaper’s editor and publisher emeritus, Robert Estabrook, did not face an easy road. It took contentious meetings in then-Governor Ella Grasso’s office as well as testimony to the state Legislature and other relentless lobbying by those who believed in the need for sunshine laws. Many of those were journalists, who worked to have open government mandated in order to have information available not only for their use in reporting the news, but also for any citizen to have access to such information. It changed the way government does business, and the way the public can view that process.

While the laws have not created perfectly open government in Connecticut, just imagine what the past thirty years would have wrought in secrecy without them. This state and its citizens owe a debt of gratitude to those with the vision to fight for FOI laws, and the best way to show appreciation is to use those laws to keep those in our government accountable to the people they serve.

Those who gathered for the FOI conference last week were serious about keeping their towns and cities compliant with the state’s FOI laws. The discussion was open and lively, and it was clear that the process is not a simple one for any of them.

Local government, just like the society it controls, is constantly evolving, making life ever more complicated for those who run it. But it’s critical that even through the necessary slashing of budgets across the state and in Hartford, the Freedom of Information Commission continue to receive the financial support it needs from the state to remain vigilant in keeping municipalities updated on the requirements of the state’s FOI laws.

For anyone interested, the conference was taped by CT-N and is showing on its stations across the state.

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