Home » Winsted Journal pursues FOI issue

Winsted Journal pursues FOI issue

WINSTED - The Winsted Journal continues to pursue a complaint with the state’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission requesting emails between Winchester Board of Education members regarding board business. Many of the emails have yet to be seen.In the second week of August, the Journal filed an FOI request to receive copies of emails in which members conducted board business from Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 to Monday, Aug. 8, 2011.Copies of emails since the date of the Journal’s request were submitted for public review by board chairman Susan Hoffnagle, board members Christine Royer and Joseph Hanecak.Board member Mari-Ellen Pratt Valyo was elected to the board in July, and she submitted her emails from the beginning of her time with the board.Board members James DiVita and Paul O’Meara did not submit emails at all, while board member Richard Dutton submitted emails from Dec. 27, 2010 to Aug. 8, 2011.Board member Carol Palomba left a note for the Journal that said, “My old computer had a hard drive crash. I have a new computer. This is all of my emails.”Palomba’s emails are dated from March 2 to July 25, 2011.In reviewing the emails, a letter was found from board attorney Mark Sommaruga dated Aug. 11, 2011, and sent to the entire board.The letter was a response to the Journal’s FOI request.“I would stress that board members should forward these emails ASAP,” Sommaruga wrote. Sommaruga added that the board members should submit their emails in two batches: emails that a board member felt should be exempt from the FOI request and emails that are not exempt.Sommaruga wrote that emails that were exempt from the Journal’s FOI request include: emails discussing personnel matters, emails discussing a student issue, emails pertaining to strategy and negotiation pertaining to collective bargaining, emails containing negotiations pertaining to claims and litigation, emails containing records of the personnel search committee and emails protected under attorney client privilege.“The mere fact that an email may be embarrassing, for instance, Board of Education members insulting each other, will not excuse disclosure,” Sommaruga wrote to the board. “Unless these emails are part of the above listed exemptions, for example: Board of Education members insulting each other in the course of discussing teacher negotiations.”While Sommaruga’s letter to the board was dated Aug. 11, it took the Journal weeks to inspect the emails due to the board voting to put restrictions on email access.At a meeting on Sept. 13, the board denied a request to review and examine any and all emails before The Winsted Journal purchased copies of them.At a special meeting on Sept. 17, the board voted that the Journal, or anyone viewing the emails, could not bring a notebook, tape recorder or a camera to the office while emails are inspected.On Sept. 30, the Journal sent a request to Board Chairman Susan Hoffnagle asking to view the emails on file at the school districts office and for the Journal to bring a tape recorder, a note pad and a pen to take notes while emails are inspected.Hoffnagle wrote back granting the request.The board’s bylaws, under the section “Electronic Mail Usage and Retention,” state that “The Freedom of Information Act mandates that all meetings of public bodies such as the Board of Education be open to the public. It is the policy of the Board of Education that email shall not be used in such a manner as to deprive the public of the rights given to it under the Freedom of Information Act.”The bylaw goes on to list that “email, like other written forms of communication relating to the conduct of the public business, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and subject to disclosure. Board members shall not use email as a substitute for deliberation at public meetings, and/or shall not use email to vote informally on any issues. Personnel issues and other sensitive subjects should never be discussed online. The confidentiality of employee data, student data and other sensitive subjects must always be maintained.”As for email access, the bylaw lists that “Each board member will be responsible for paying all consumable expenses associated with email usage - for example, office supplies, reproduction and printing. In the event a board member elects not to access email, a hard copy of all email directed to the board will be placed in the board packet and will also be available at the Board of Education central office.”

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