By CFOG Director Matthew Kauffman
Connecticut has one of the best freedom-of-information laws in the country, built on the fundamental truth that government employees are our employees and government records are our property, to be made promptly available (with narrow exceptions). So what do you do when a government agency turns down your request? If you think you’re entitled to the documents, never take the first “no” for an answer. Instead, here are five steps you can take to improve your odds of getting the records that are rightfully yours.
- Demand a specific statutory citation.
Agencies can’t deny access to records simply because they don’t think they should be public, or they think the contents are embarrassing, or they don’t like what you want to do with the information. The Freedom of Information Act and other laws spell out the exceptions to the general mandate favoring disclosure. So ask the agency to tell you what section of the General Statutes it believes permits withholding the records.
- Study the law and case law
You don’t need to take an agency’s word for it that certain records are off limits. Review the Freedom of Information Act, paying particular attention to the list of exemptions. (Be aware that some exemptions to the act are codified elsewhere in the General Statutes.) Also note that many exemptions are “permissive” – agencies are not required by law to release records that are permissively exempt, but neither are they required to withhold them. The Freedom of Information Commission also maintains a searchable list of its rulings on public-records cases. Use that resource to bolster your argument that you’re in the right and the agency is wrong. Another valuable resource: The Open Government Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which outlines Connecticut’s FOI law in a Q-and-A format.
- Consider political pressure points.
Sadly, some public employees have a reflexive preference for government secrecy, without regard for the public-policy or political ramifications. Sometimes, those political considerations can work in your favor. If a municipal agency is withholding records you’re sure you’re entitled to, don’t be afraid to contact the mayor or first selectperson and ask why his or her underling is hiding public information.
- Send up an SOS
Many organizations in Connecticut are committed to open government and willing to assist a legitimate request for records, including, of course, the Connecticut Foundation on Open Government. Other pro-transparency groups in the state include the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In addition, The Freedom of Information Commission’s public education officer, Tom Hennick, can provide impartial guidance on the law.
- File a complaint
When all else fails, Connecticut’s citizen-friendly appeal process is your last resort. There’s no cost and you don’t need a lawyer. Just remember you must file your appeal with the Freedom of Information Commission within 30 days of the agency’s denial of your request. (And if you’re negotiating with the agency, don’t worry; the clock resets every time you make an inquiry about the request.) If the agency simply ignores your request? After four business days, you can consider that a denial, and the 30-day clock begins. The Commission’s Citizen’s Guide has the details on how to file your appeal.