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FOIA discussion focuses on justice, fairness, abuse in New Canaan

Published 12:00 pm, Thursday, February 7, 2013

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  • The shelf in Town Hall full of the meeting notices and agendas from town bodies between 2002 and 2013. There is another smaller shelf behind it. Photo: Tyler Woods
    The shelf in Town Hall full of the meeting notices and agendas from town bodies between 2002 and 2013. There is another smaller shelf behind it. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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Town officials and some residents attended an information session on Thursday, Jan. 31, to refresh them on the state Freedom of Information Act, which ensures that much of what officials do is public.

FOI Commission staff member Tom Hennick explained that although the impetus for Connecticut's FOIA, which was passed unanimously through the General Assembly 38 years ago, was the Watergate scandal during the administration of President Richard Nixon, the true roots of the act are found in the theoretical seeds of the country.

"The law has its foundation back in the founding of our government," he said. "For democracy to work, information cannot exist in a vacuum."

FOI requests in town

New Canaan town government is no stranger to FOI requests, where the time and resources spent responding to them has caused widespread grumbling.

Included in the Board of Education's 2013-14 operating budget is a request for $40,000 to hire a part-time "public information specialist" to handle some of the load of FOI requests the district processes. In her presentation to the Board of Selectmen, Superintendent Mary Kolek said enough of her time is spent fulfilling FOI requests to warrant a part-time position.

At the Thursday's meeting, Town Councilman Steve Karl asked if Hennick had seen towns put a place in their budgets for someone to handle FOI requests and if the town ought to plan for a department.

"This law was not meant to be a weapon," Hennick said. "It's not a `gotcha' law. It should be part of your regular duties. It should not be something that's overwhelming, that you're considering an extra room for. I'd have to say what you're going through is unusual. I've never seen a separate budget item (for FOI)."

New Canaan Administrative Officer Tom Stadler is the one in Town Hall who handles FOI requests. He said that the influx of requests varies, but can be high sometimes.

"I get maybe four, five or six a year on average," he said in an interview, "except for one individual, and last year, I had by my count 158 from that one individual," which does not include the Board of Education or Police Department, which respond to their own requests. "At times, when those 158 are coming in, I was spending probably 30 to 40 percent of my time fulfilling those requests. I think we've had three requests in the new year, so it's dropped exponentially."

The individual Stadler was referring to, but did not name, is Michael Nowacki, who also attended the FOI information session and confirmed Stadler's number or requests, though noted that some of them were repeats on requests that he said were not accurately completed the first time. Nowacki has used many of the documents he's obtained under the FOIA in the appendix of an $11 million federal lawsuit he's filed against the town for what he claims to be a smorgasbord of illegal financial activities in the past several years.

"What it does is it allows there to be the ability of citizens who want to be informed about how their government operates to have a mechanism to investigate matters of public importance," Nowacki said of his prodigious use of the FOIA. "I view this as being a responsibility of citizenship, which is to be vigilant of your government."

Some in town disagree, including Selectman Nick Williams, who questioned the reach of the law.

"We have an open government," he said in an interview. "Right now, the town and the Board of Education are currently dealing with one particular individual who is making FOIA requests on an almost daily basis, requests that are based on misinformed and sometimes bizarre premises. This is forcing our employees hundreds of hours to deal with and it's costing New Canaan residents thousands of dollars. Clearly, there's something wrong with FOIA if it's allowing the town to be hijacked in this manner."

Caucusing

Another issue that came up in the information session was the use of intraparty caucusing and public meetings. Hennick explained that members of public bodies basically cannot deliberate on matters before them outside of public meetings.

"If you're going out to lunch, what else are you going to talk about?" he conceded. "But make sure you're not deliberating."

The only time board, commission or committee members could have serious policy discussions is if they are all of the same party on the same body and meet in a caucus, which Hennick described as "a giant loophole in the concept of open government," because it allows substantive discussion to be held outside of the public eye.

The Town Council members said they do not use caucuses for that reason. Karl called the practice "foreign to us." With the election of John Engel to the Town Council, former member Tom O'Dea, who was elected to the state Legislature, suggested the Republicans meet in a caucus to pick a candidate so that the losers would not be publicly embarrassed. But that approach was rejected by the council. Council member Tucker Murphy explained that Engel's election was a good example of the council making sure all deliberation is done in public.

"That's what the taxpayers deserve and respect," she said after the meeting.

Adherence

In recent years, more and more town boards and commissions have been cognisant about adhering to the FOIA.

In the offices of Town Hall, Town Clerk Claudia Weber displayed a single drawer of a filing cabinet, full of thin manila envelopes, which contained the notices of meetings and agendas of all town bodies from 1998 to 2001. She then displayed in the next room the same documents, from 2002 to 2013, which took up a nearly 8-foot-tall shelf containing tomes of documents, and another 4-foot shelf on the ground next to it with many more such books of files.

"We've come a long way in educating board and commission members about FOIA requirements," Weber said. "I think that for the most part, people are on board and doing their best to comply with the law ... There have been changing attitudes on the part of our town officials and a willingness to be as up to date and progressive as possible."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews