Senate sends FOI fix to Malloy’s desk

An emergency fix to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information law — crafted without a public hearing or committee review — was headed to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk following Wednesday’s unanimous Senate vote.

The measure, designed to clear legal obstacles blocking the release of voter lists and other omnibus public registries, has been criticized by right-to-know advocates who argue that it offers little security to the protected public employees it is designed to safeguard.

“This bill attempts to strike a balance” between the public’s right to know and government’s efforts to safeguard police officers, prison guards and other employees in sensitive roles, said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

The measure, which the House adopted 120-11 last week, was crafted in response to last June’s state Supreme Court ruling, which held 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, noting that neither she, nor municipal clerks, have the resources to find all of these names.

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, buildings, 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 private when secondary databases are released to the public.

But critics argued this offers very little protection.

Both the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information criticized the legislature for rushing now — without a public hearing — to solve a problem that has existed since last summer.

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, since the largest record databases aren’t subjected to redaction.

Though Republican Sens. Leonard A. Fasano of North Haven and Joseph Markley of Southington voted for the bill, they also argued that the measure was hurried and should be revisited before the regular session ends in early May.

The legislature should be working more closely with municipal clerks across Connecticut to find the best possible solution to the challenges posed by the court ruling, Fasano said. “We should hear from the clerks,” he said. “We call this the people’s house, but the doors are closed.”

“The emergency certification process is a dangerous tool in our hands,” Markley added.

Leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority have said it was important to act now once it became clear there was a consensus on how to proceed.

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.

Malloy offered a different solution that had won support both from the newspaper association and from CCFOI.

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 last week that while the emergency bill “goes in a different direction than the governor’s legislation, the bill is acceptable.”