House passes emergency FOI fix

The House of Representatives adopted an emergency fix Thursday to the state’s right-to-know law that could break a legal logjam blocking the release of voter lists and other omnibus public registries.

The bill, which passed 120-11 and now heads to the Senate, would allow public agencies to release major voter and property databases without the arduous task of identifying and redacting addresses of police officers, prison guards and other “protected” public employees.

[How they voted]

But critics argued that the measure, adopted without a public hearing, is technically flawed, and offers little security to those employees hoping to keep their personal information private.

And the head of Connecticut’s right-to-know agency warned Thursday that another legislative fix still might be needed.

“This is a whole lot better and helps the towns a whole lot more than what they are dealing with now,” said Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

Official record-keepers at the state and municipal levels have been at odds since last June when the state Supreme Court ruled that a statute barring disclosure of home addresses of protected employees applied to the motor vehicle registration lists that communities use to prepare property tax bills.

Based on that ruling, legislators said it became clear that the statute also would apply to other common governmental databases, including voter registration lists.

Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill said she hasn’t released an updated statewide voter registration list since that ruling, arguing there was no way to do so and be certain that the law — as interpreted by the courts — wouldn’t be violated.

In theory the lists could be released, provided the addresses of all protected employees first were removed. But Merrill noted it would require cross-referencing data from hundreds of state and municipal records.

“We can’t even figure out who to redact,” she said. “We feel we would face liability under this ruling.”

The measure adopted Thursday identifies three major classes of records that must be released, in full, to the public starting June 1:

  • Municipal land records.
  • Voter registration lists, logs of absentee ballot applications and related election information.
  • And municipal grand lists, the databases that detail assessed values of land, building, motor vehicles subject to property taxes.

The measure does allow protected employees to submit a request in writing to municipal record-keepers, asking that their addresses be kept out of secondary databases.

But critics argued this offers very little protection.

“A good detective can find out where anybody lives within 48 hours” with access to land, tax and voting records, said Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold. “How much we are really accomplishing with this law is debatable.”

The bill “gives me great pause,” added Rep. Pamela Z. Sawyer, R-Bolton, who argued that the measure lacks uniformity. It is unclear which official in each community will process requests for confidentiality, or how the information might or might not be protected after someone from this protected class moves from one Connecticut town to another.

“What a surprise it is going to be,” Sawyer said.

Chris VanDeHoef, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, decried the decision of leaders in the Democratic-controlled House to take up a bill not seen until Thursday to solve a problem that has lingered since last summer.

“The newspaper association is disappointed that the legislature has chosen to make a change in the FOI law — via an emergency certified bill without a public hearing,” said VanDeHoef, who also lobbies for the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. “We think the FOI law is more important than that.”

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the bill wasn’t adopted Thursday to speed up the release of voter lists specifically or any other particular public database.

“We’ve been begged by town clerks, other municipal officials, the secretary of the state, real estate attorneys, title searchers and banks to fix this immediately,” he said, adding that when it became clear there was a consensus in the House on how to act, leaders were ready to move. “Everyone has their own reasons for wanting this fixed now.”

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a candidate for Congress, acknowledged that the unavailability of voting lists in an election year is a problem.

Both of VanDeHoef’s groups were supporting a bill offered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a measure that was raised at a public hearing this week before the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee.

The governor’s bill would have returned the FOI law to its pre-1999 status when it came to protected public employees, keeping only those workers’ personnel records confidential.

The governor’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said Thursday that while the House bill “goes in a different direction than the governor’s legislation, the bill is acceptable.”

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, said she also fears that the House bill offers “somewhat illusory protections” to select public employees.

“In this day and age, where so much information is available electronically, the approach in this bill is not very clean,” she said. “I understand what the legislature is trying to do, but the whole thing is somewhat convoluted,” she said. “Perhaps a more comprehensive look should be taken in the future.”