Public Information Advisory Board shot down by council
By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Wed., Apr. 6, 2011
The Vernon Town Council voted down a proposal, 7-3, to form a three-person Freedom of Information Advisory Board for the town.
Councilman James Krupienski (Independent) said he brought forward the idea for the committee because he learned that councilman Mark Etre (who was not present at the meeting on April 5) had begun looking into the process of how freedom of information requests were handled by the town.
“Many of the items requested,” Krupienski said, “were basic documents that individuals could simply go into the departments and review, individually, without making requests.”
Krupienski said his concern was that, rather than simply providing the information, the town was paying attorneys to review whether or not the requested items should be given to an individual. He added that he also thought many town employees were not aware of what information was contained within their departments, and/or what was or was not public information.
Krupienski said the proposal would “allow the greatest amount of access to public records for the least amount of cost possible.”
“I see the board or commission itself as someone who will go forward and try to train our employees, and set up a consistent fee schedule,” Krupienski said, adding that the board would also advise residents on how to proceed in making requests, or if requests are not answered, or not answered in a timely manner.
Tom Hennick, public education officer for State of Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said that the training would be free of cost to the town, and typically, several town employees take part, as well as the board members.
He explained that the role of the advisory board would help town department employees when not sure whether they should release information.
“The idea is to give you another tool — another resource,” Hennick said.
At the comment portion of the preceding public hearing, resident Edie Chernak of Cubles Drive said she supported the ordinance.
“I think it’s about time,” she said. “It would be nice to stop wasting our tax dollars on attorneys, and have our town employees be able to do their job thoroughly.”
“This is an ordinance that will make our government a little more efficient, save money, and not cut services,” said resident Mike Chernak, also of Cubles Drive.
“I think it has a tremendous possibility to open up, for the citizens, the transparency of government,” Councilwoman Marie Herbst said.
Councilman Daniel Anderson said he opposed the idea of a committee, since he feared partisanship among its members may potentially hinder actual information being obtained by the public.
“That’s one of our problems in this town,” Anderson said. “Commissions usually do break down.”
Anderson said he'd rather support a new town policy statement on freedom of information requests, and added that he didn't think a volunteer committee should have the responsibility of advising residents on matters of what town information can or cannot be released.
Councilman Dan Champagne, also the public information officer for the Vernon Police Department, said he was for the training, especially of town workers.
“I went through that training,” he said. “I know what I can release and can’t release. If the town workers actually go to FOI training, and many of them have, I think it will work the same way.”
Krupienski said that other volunteers, such as zoning board members, deal with a much larger amount of regulations routinely and often do not receive any training.
Councilman Michael Winkler blasted council members who were opposed to the board ordinance.
“Knowledge is power,” he said. “There are people who want to share power, and there are people who don’t. The law in Connecticut is that you must share information. That makes conservatives very uncomfortable.”
Winkler objected to Anderson’s point about volunteers.
“We have volunteers doing much more important things than deciding whether or not something is public information. We have volunteers saving lives, putting out fires…and you’re going to say a volunteer can’t decide if something can or cannot be copied and given to somebody. If they can teach a town council member what he can and can’t release, then they can teach volunteers.”
Critical of the idea of a town public information policy, Winkler cited the state statute which already governs such matters, and criticized the town administration for “micro-managing” information.
Winkler said the last time he made an FOI request, he waited four months, and then received a letter from a town attorney, saying that the item was indeed public information. “They wait until they’re ready to have an FOI hearing, and then suddenly it dawns on them that it’s public information. Believe me, the attorney for the town I was dealing with knew on day one that it was public information.”
Mayor Jason McCoy said he disagreed with Winkler's assessment of how information is currently released.
“I actually believe that information should get out,” McCoy said, “but it puts you in a bad situation… that’s why there are exceptions when there is litigation pending or other types of situations.”
Kennick said there are only about half a dozen such boards around the state, and many towns have instead appointed a public information liaison.
He said that his guess was that many towns simply do not wish to form another commission, but either way, the resource has the same purpose.
“The goal is to try to make FOI easier for everybody to deal with,” Hennick said.
By the end of the discussion, Krupienski seemed fine with the council’s apparent opposition to the advisory board, but still pushed for town staff training.
“We need to make sure that we’re not having to pay for reviews of things that can easily be determined by our properly trained staff,” he said. "We want our staff to be knowledgeable of what they are doing.”
Democrats Herbst and Winkler voted for the ordinance, along with Krupienski. The remaining seven – all Republicans, with Democrat Pauline Schaefer and Republican Mark Etre absent – voted against it.