Op-Ed: In Wake of FOI Decision, Change Is Needed in New Canaan

Have you ever requested a document that was discussed at a public meeting and been denied? Or perhaps asked to see correspondence on a proposed application or a draft approval and been told that those documents are not available to the general public? On May 21, 2018, in a proposed final decision of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, what we believe to be a longstanding illegal practice of New Canaan’s Planning & Zoning Commission—namely, the denial of prompt access to draft decisional documents that have been discussed in public—has been exposed.

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act guarantees you, with limited and narrowly construed exceptions, prompt access to public records without having to go through the formalities of filing a formal FOI request. Until recently, representatives of the town have continued to advocate for withholding public records, notwithstanding, and in the face of, more than a quarter century of Connecticut Supreme Court precedent.

Any elected or appointed town official or town employee who engages in willful blindness and continues to advocate for an illegal practice or directs others to violate the law has no place in our town government. They represent a liability that puts New Canaan at risk of legal jeopardy. In this context, it is important to note that the immunities against personal liability normally extended to public officials acting in their official capacity do not apply. Why? Because denying concerned persons ready access to public documents may constitute, among other things, a civil rights violation actionable under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

The ability to freely access public information is a sign of a healthy town—one where there are no “backroom” handshakes, unsaid agreements on voting, or “cooked” deals. Taxpaying New Canaan residents deserve full transparency from their government officials where their interests and rights are respectfully considered and protected—not a white wash. Anyone who tells you differently or thinks they should decide what public documents you can see and understand belongs in a different type of government.

The illegal conduct that has come to light continues to demonstrate the need for change by our town officials and employees. Immediate action needs to be taken by our Board of Selectmen, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy implemented for these types of transgressions. In the words of Harold L. Cross, one of the early champions of FOIA, “Public business is the public’s business. The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.”

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