Small towns dump Web sites rather than post meeting minutes
By Keith M. Phaneuf
Nearly a dozen small Connecticut towns have abandoned their Internet sites, saying they can't afford to comply with a new posting requirement for public agencies.
Barton D. Russell, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said Monday that 10 communities have shut down their sites since the law took effect Oct. 1, and several more have raised concerns.
"I think a lot of legislators didn't know what they were agreeing to" when the measure was adopted in special session in late June, Russell said. "It's become a real problem."
At issue is a requirement that communities operating Web sites — which include nearly all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut — must post minutes from public meetings online within seven days. The measure also says municipalities must post notices of special meetings on their sites at least 24 hours in advance.
The problem, Russell said, is that most small towns can't afford to devote much funding to their Web sites, often relying on volunteers.
Within a few weeks of the Oct. 1 effective date, officials in Harwinton and New Hartford shut down their sites, rather than risk being found out of compliance.
Similarly, Andover's Board of Selectmen voted to close the town site. Residents of that town still can use an unofficial site on municipal affairs run by volunteers.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office, which first developed the legislation, tried to assuage towns shortly after the measure took effect.
Rell's deputy legal counsel, Mary Anne O'Neill, wrote to the Council of Small Towns, explaining the new law might not be as burdensome as towns think.
O'Neill wrote that the posting obligation applies individually to each specific board or agency within a town. Therefore, rf a school board or planning commission hasn't been using the town's Web site to post current information, it doesn't have to start now.
But Rell's office lacks the authority to enforce or review freedom-of-information law, and some town officials say the statute is murky at best.
The Freedom of Information Commission, which has jurisdiction to interpret the state's right-to-know laws, declined on Oct. 22 a Council of Small Towns' request to craft an advisory opinion on the new legislation.
Though the commission didn't propose the new law, its executive director, Colleen Murphy, said Monday that it is based on a "good, forward-thinking concept," recognizing that residents increasingly are turning to the Internet to research government proceedings.
But Murphy also said "calls have really been flooding into her office," from town officials who are confused about the new requirement.
Queries include whether a municipal board that's listed on a town Web site, but hasn't yet posted minutes and meeting notices, must start posting such items. Others have asked why, if the law applies only to those towns that already were posting such records, the law was adopted in the first place.
Murphy said the commission hopes to work with legislators and municipal officials to clarify the law's intent during the regular 2009 General Assembly session, which starts Jan. 7.