HARTFORD — Lawmakers are considering a compromise between municipalities and the Freedom of Information Commission aimed at helping both sides deal with seemingly tedious or excessive requests for public documents.
FOI advocates are raising concern, though, because the bill also reprises a $125 fee on complaints to the commission, language that was included in legislation last year that sparked the compromise.
Dan Klau, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said in written testimony to the Government Administration and Elections Committee Monday that the fee “would have a serious chilling effect on citizens exercising their fundamental right to access public records and meetings of public agencies.”
Rep. Adam Dunsby, R-Easton, told the committee during a public hearing Monday that he wanted the compromise he helped broker with the FOI Commission to be this year’s bill, and that he didn’t want to bring back the fee he initially proposed last year.
He said his desired proposal instead is to give the commission the ability not to schedule hearings for complaints aimed at harassing or badgering public officials.
“The public has the right to access public documents and to observe the meetings of public agencies,” he wrote in testimony. “However, the public’s right to records must not be transformed into a right to harass and burden public officials.”
The proposal includes language that would allow public agencies to petition the FOI Commission asking that it not schedule a hearing if it believes a complaint is “vexatious,” or tedious or causing annoyance or frustration.
Under the proposal, the commission’s executive director would consider the petition, which would need to point to evidence that can include the number of requests filed by the complainant, and the scope, nature, language, or subject matter of the request.
Public agencies could also point to the scope, nature, language, or subject matter of other interaction with the complainant, or a “pattern of conduct that amounts to an abuse” of the state’s FOI Act “or an interference with operation of the (public) agency.”
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Connecticut Council of Small Towns both endorsed the bill.
Dunsby, who is also Easton’s first selectman, gave an example of someone who has filed 135 requests in a two-year period, and said the person’s “objective is to harass public officials.”
FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy backed the revisions, saying they give the commission the ability to better use their limited resources. The commission must make rulings on complaints within a year of filing.
Klau also backed that section of the bill, but said CCFOI won’t support the proposal so long as it contains a fee. CCFOI represents a group of FOI advocates, including the Record-Journal and other media outlets.
“By imposing a filing fee on FOIA complaints, raised (House) Bill 5175 would undermine one of the great strengths of the FOIA — free citizen access to the FOIC,” Klau wrote.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and co-chairwoman of GAE, said no one is sure who included the fee, and agreed with Dunsby that the language could be a mistake. She also said she supports changes that the FOI Commission says will make the process more efficient, but is opposed to the fee.
“In general, I know I believe — and I think many of my colleagues believe — that the FOI process should stay as open to all citizens of Connecticut as it can,” she said.