Navigating FOIA compliance locally

CORNWALL — In a Thursday, Feb. 29, training session at The Cornwall Library, Russell Blair, director of education and communication at the state Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), delved into the intricacies of transparency and accountability in government.

The Freedom of Information Act, inspired by the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, aimed to empower citizens by allowing them to witness decision-making processes.

Blair emphasized the importance of adhering to specific standards during town meetings and properly handling public records. With 600-700 complaints received annually, officials must navigate these guidelines to prevent violations.

From posting meeting agendas to timely filing minutes, small towns like Cornwall can face challenges in maintaining transparency and avoiding pitfalls.

Blair explained there are specific standards that must be met for town meetings and public record-keeping. If the standards are not met, FOIC can nullify the votes taken at any improper meeting.

Agendas for regular and special meetings must be posted at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. No prior notice of an emergency meeting is required.

Online-only or hybrid meetings require the connection link and instructions to be posted 48 hours in advance of the meeting.

Minutes for regular and special meetings must be filed with the town clerk within seven days of the meeting. Emergency meeting minutes must be filed within 72 hours.

“Don’t wait on filing your minutes until the board approves them because if the board is not going to approve them for a month and you don’t file them for that month, then that would be a violation,” said Blair.

In small towns with small boards, Blair advised officials take care to avoid discussion of agenda items outside official meetings.

Blair said if “a quorum of the board is together in-person or electronically and they’re talking about things that are before the board, that’s what makes it a meeting under FOI” and the discussion would be subject to the same notice standards as any other town meeting.

Recordings are required for online-only meetings, but not required for in-person or hybrid meetings. Audience members can be removed from online lobbies for being disorderly, which became common practice during the pandemic due to “Zoom bombers” — unknown users who disrupt public Zoom meetings.

Public comment is not mandatory at meetings of town boards in Connecticut.

Blair said boards and commissions “can do whatever you wish with public comment.” That may include restricting topics that can be discussed, setting maximum speaking times or removing public comment from meetings entirely.

Blair explained that any recorded data or information related to the conduct of the public’s business is part of the public record and must be available if requested. This could include minutes, vote results, other filings, and even emails or text messages from personal accounts if the content of the message deals with public business or record-keeping.

“Any request for public records in Connecticut is considered to be an FOI request,” he said.

Requests must be made in writing, for a specific record and delivered to the relevant department.

“It’s not an opportunity to ask a million questions,” Blair added.

Certain records are exempt and may be withheld, including personnel files, draft documents, notes, and documents protected by attorney-client privilege.

Towns are not obligated to fulfill the request immediately but must show that efforts have been made to deliver the record in a “reasonable” timeframe.

Blair noted that delayed requests are the most common point of complaint to FOIC.

To make a Freedom of Information complaint, users can submit online at portal.ct.gov/FOI or write a letter to the department at 165 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT 06106. Complaints must be filed within 30 days of the reported violation.

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