The 2017 Annual Freedom of Information Conference

FOI Commission staffers Tom Hennick, Lisa Siegel, Kathleen Ross, Paula Pearlman and Valicia Harmon

By Tom Hennick, Freedom of Information Commission Public Education Officer

The annual Bartlett Barnes Freedom of Information Conference, supported by CFOG, was held on April 21, 2017 at the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station in Haddam. Municipal and state officials as well as interested citizens comprised an audience of about 150 to hear guest speakers and discuss issues of interest surrounding government transparency.

Four different sessions were offered, designed to help attendees learn the skills and gain the knowledge necessary to help comply with Freedom of Information laws in Connecticut. Each session was sprinkled with thoughts and practical advice on the conference theme, “Fulfilling the Promise of Promptness,” which references the need to provide access to non-exempt public records promptly under the law.

Freedom of Information Commission Executive Director Colleen M. Murphy welcomed Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who spoke of the strides his office has made in increasing government transparency through the use of the “Open Connecticut” portal on its website. He urged those in attendance to understand the importance of government transparency.

Following the opening remarks, the audience split for two sessions. Those who were newcomers to the world of FOI joined Commission Counsel Tracie Brown for “FOI 101: A Crash Course in the FOI Act.” All other participants joined commission staff for “Nuts and Bolts: Answers to Cutting Edge FOIA Questions.” Moderated by Public Education officer Tom Hennick, the session featured staff attorneys Lisa Siegel, Valicia Harmon, Kathleen Ross and Paula Pearlman answering questions about FOI compliance submitted by attendees.

After the opening sessions all participants heard the popular panel “Complying with the FOIA: Some Helpful Hints.” This panel, which has become a conference staple, featured Attorneys Tom Mooney and Henry Zaccardi from Shipman and Goodwin who offered various hypotheticals. Each attorney presented a different point of view and then asked the audience to side with one point of view or the other.

The final panel, “Fulfilling the Promise of Promptness,” explored various methods of complying with the promptness provisions in the FOI Act. The panel was moderated by Attorney Stephen Nevas and featured Janet Ainsworth, an attorney from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection; Tamara Titre, an associate city attorney for the city of Bridgeport; LeAnn Power, the Public Records Administrator for the Connecticut State Library and Alex Wood, a veteran reporter for the Manchester Journal Inquirer.

The conference was capped by the keynote speech of noted journalist and former state legislator Kevin F. Rennie. Rennie offered attendees historical perspective on the need for government transparency dating back to the release of the Pentagon Papers and the secretive nature of the Nixon administration, which provided the impetus for Governor Ella Grasso to advocate for the passage of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act in 1975.

Rennie decried the apparent disdain of some government entities for transparency but urged all in attendance not to “take (transparency) for granted and let ourselves get too comfortable and conciliatory with the opposition.”

“It may be exhausting and exasperating, but we can never stop fighting,” he said.

“We don’t need the summer soldiers that Thomas Paine damned with his immortal prose at the dawn of our historic experiment in freedom. We need year-round recruits in this battle that unfortunately will never end—with the real enemies including not only the powerful and privileged who want to hide truth from a public that deserves to know it, but also some of the well-intentioned who preach the proposition that personal privacy is to be prized and protected in ways that damage not only freedom of information, but, in the long run, the very freedom that Thomas Paine and his fellow revolutionaries fought for,” he said.