Connecticut's Freedom of Information law was once the pride of the nation. It has withstood numerous assaults by judges, legislators and other officials with plenty to hide.
Mandated by the will of Gov. Ella Grasso in 1975, the FOI law even has a beautiful preamble:
"The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know . . ."
We, the people, do not yield sovereignty to the agencies that supposedly serve us. We do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for us to know. How often do you think this principle of self government is violated on a daily basis when citizens request a viewing or copies of the public records they rightfully own?
It depends on factors including what municipal or state office you enter, the demeanor of the public servants and the leadership. Some people actually believe in public service. They tend to be hospitable, even pleasant and helpful. Others act as if you have three heads or are a scout for Martians who are about to vaporize the building. They are backed up by lawyers well-practiced in the delay, deny, delay game.
"Who are you?"
"Why do you want those records?"
"Why are you investigating that?"
These words were uttered to my colleague Jack Coraggio of the Litchfield County Times and me during a recent visit to Danbury City Hall.
In what seemed to be a practice and perhaps a policy of intimidation, we were told that even the most rudimentary requests must be presented in writing and reviewed by a lawyer. This gave me new appreciation for lawyers as creators of fiction. They love to dance around the requirement of the law that documents must be produced promptly. As a practical matter, this means documents must be produced immediately, unless the agency can prove that this would interfere with the normal course of business.
We were also told that "a public agency may have to review certain files prior to disclosure to ensure that no documents are being disclosed that could be considered exempt under the FOI statute, or that are privileged."
Hmm. Why would privileged or exempt material be held in a public file? If that's the case, then the small army of lawyers ensconced therein is providing ineffective assistance of counsel.