By Colleen Murphy
Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission was well represented at the 39th annual conference of the Council on Government Ethics Laws (COGEL), held in Toronto, Canada from December 3-6, 2017. Executive Director and General Counsel Colleen Murphy, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel Mary Schwind and Public Education Officer Tom Hennick all attended the conference and were panelists and/or panel moderators during the four-day session. As always, the conference was enlightening, engaging and very worthwhile.
Connecticut’s FOI Commission has long been represented at COGEL, an international organization. Former Executive Director and General Counsel Mitchell Pearlman and current executive Director Murphy have served terms on COGEL’s governing body. Pearlman was the 2004 recipient of the COGEL Outstanding Service Award and is credited with bringing the first Freedom of Information contingents to COGEL.
The conference features more than 40 concurrent sessions and four plenary sessions all geared toward the exchange of ideas about improving open, accessible and ethical government around the world. The program is developed entirely by volunteer members of the COGEL community who serve on COGEL’s program committee. Public Education Officer Hennick has been a member of the program committee representing the FOI community since 2007.
Five of the concurrent programs in Toronto were devoted entirely to pressing Freedom of Information issues. Two sessions focused on the ever-expanding use of social media by public agencies and the logistics needed to guarantee transparency when social media is in play. Panelists from jurisdictions in Texas, Canada, and Minnesota as well as noted media attorney Dana Green discussed and explored the various nuances of public agencies using Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail as they relate to government transparency.
Another FOI panel was a lively review of the “Glomar Denial,” based on judicial decisions that allow agencies to neither confirm nor deny that they have records that have been requested. The panel explored the validity of this wrinkle in the access world that could lead to less transparency.
Managing Director Schwind presented the United States legislation and litigation review at another session. The 44-page report (included, for your information) was prepared this year by Connecticut FOI attorney Paula Pearlman with an assist from others on the Connecticut staff and is a fixture at the COGEL conference. It is presented as part of a panel that includes a Canadian legislation and litigation report. Rounding out the FOI-centric sessions was an FOI Roundtable moderated by Executive Director Murphy and education officer Hennick from Connecticut. This session attracts individuals from not only the FOI discipline but also ethics, elections enforcement and lobbying disciplines to discuss government transparency.
Attendance at the FOI sessions ranged from 25-75. More than 30 states as well as the District of Columbia, Canada and Mexico were represented at the conference.