As one of a select few states with a public board dedicated to adjudicating freedom of information disputes, Connecticut is uniquely equipped to uphold public access to government meetings and documents. But there is always room for improvement.
An Eastern Connecticut resident recently called to our attention a dynamic of the state Freedom of Information Commission’s operation that he says renders their judgments toothless and compromises public trust in both the commission and the government bodies it is charged with holding to account.
In a June 1 letter emailed to commissioners, Paul Baer withdrew pending appeals he had filed against boards and committees of the town of Thompson, citing the commission’s failure to levy civil fines against officials found to be in violation of state FOI law.
In final decisions answering three earlier complaints Baer filed, the commission found two town boards had failed to post agendas or meeting minutes in accordance with the law, but commissioners accepted explanations including staff absence and lack of Web training. Two of the violations prompted a commission order stating, “Henceforth, the respondents shall strictly comply” with the relevant sections of the FOI act.
Baer says the boilerplate language, unaccompanied by any kind of civil penalty — the law allows a fine of up to $1,000 for an offense — denudes the commission of authority and constitutes a dereliction of the duty to enforce FOI standards.
“What’s the incentive for these government agencies not to keep violating the Freedom of Information Act?” Baer said in a phone interview. “They know nothing’s going to happen.”
Commission Executive Director and General Counsel Colleen Murphy told us the commission has, historically, issued fines only when the violations are deemed egregious or willful. Instead, commissioners hope soft incentives — such as distaste for negative publicity or a desire to avoid being called to appear at hearings — keep public officials, by and large, compliant.
“It’s been fairly rare over the whole history of the commission” to issue civil fines, Murphy said. “From the beginning … the thought among the original commission and staff was that the law should be educational and not so much punitive, and I think that kind of philosophy carried through.”
She also said repeat offenses are uncommon, especially when one considers the changing membership of many municipal boards and commissions.
“Most public officials don’t want to violate the law,” she said. “In most circumstances, once you find out you did something wrong, next time, you’re going to do your best not to do something wrong again.”
We agree. But there’s a way both to enhance compliance and to set the stage for more effective enforcement when violations do occur.
Right now, there is no formal training in place for newly elected or appointed public officials. Rather, the commission employs a public education officer who is available to offer advice and conduct workshops, which may be ordered by the commission in the case of an offense.
In our opinion, the best way forward is for the commission to establish formal training for all new public officials, and retraining for incumbents. The Legislature should then write the mandate into the FOI law.
Then, when there is a violation, there will be little room for excuses — and the commission should have no qualms about imposing monetary penalties against offenders.
This arrangement would enhance compliance by ensuring public officials are in the know, thereby reducing the commission’s caseload. And it would make a hearing before the commission something to be feared — not a mere annoyance.
Original article here.