Report on legislative initiatives from the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information

By Mike Savino, CCFOI President

The pandemic brought the Connecticut General Assembly to a halt in 2020, just as it did a lot of things. Lawmakers were back in action this year, and that meant the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information was once again busy protecting our Freedom of Information Act.

Some of our work this session included:

  • Blocking an attempt by lawmakers who wanted to exempt lists of constituent emails. We also defeated an attempt by employees in the Attorney General’s office to hide their addresses in their public personnel files.
  • Secretary of the State Denise Merrill again wanted to protect certain information in voter files, but we got lawmakers to greatly reign in her proposal. A voter’s birth year is still available to the public. The bill also makes it easier for someone concerned about intimate partner violence to utilize an existing exemption. We did not oppose this, but we did get lawmakers to agree someone must sign a sworn statement that they have safety concerns when seeking the exemption.
  • Working with the Freedom of Information Commission, we also narrowed an exemption on student data and other information related to workforce development that the Department of Labor collects. The final law is in the spirit of existing FOI exemptions and applies to things like personally identifying information, not potentially whole reports.

But there is also work left to be done. We have priorities left over from this past session, such as:

  • Updating the definition of “handheld scanner” to include cellphones, a change that would allow the public to photograph public records. Currently, public agencies can decide if you can use your cellphone. A proposal this past session also would have greatly reduced fees for making paper copies. Sadly the bill stalled as town clerks argued they need revenue from making these copies. Basically, they need to profit off the public’s right to know.
  • Ending the ability of state employee unions to carve out FOI exemptions through collective bargaining. State employee unions can preempt state law when negotiating contracts and while there may be some merit for this, this should not apply to the FOI Act. Transparency is not a workplace condition, and exemptions should not be treated as a benefit of employment.
  • We’ve been working with Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, to see how the state uses algorithms. Lamar has asked the Office of Legislative Research to catalogue when and how state agencies use algorithms to conduct the public’s business. When we get this report, we can plot our next steps in getting more transparency and accountability on this issue.

And of course, we expect to once again see several attempts to erode the FOI Act. As you can see, we’re preparing for a very busy 2022 and we’d love to hear from you as we set our priorities. Thanks for your continued support.