Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council to consider creating FOI advisory board

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

VERNON — A Town Council member has proposed adopting an ordinance that would establish a municipal advisory freedom-of-information board to better educate town employees about what documents can be made publicly available.

But Mayor Jason L. McCoy said today the ordinance would not have any effect on the legal fees, and “training staff isn’t the issue. The issue is assembling the information.”

In 2000, the state legislature passed a public act that allows towns to establish local FOI advisory boards, and so far Bristol, Hartford, and Meriden, have taken advantage of the provision, according to unaffiliated council member James Krupienski.

Vernon’s ordinance would establish a three-member commission that would act as a liaison between the state FOI Commission and local government, but would not supercede or hinder the normal FOI process, Krupienski said.

FOI costs have been a point of contention in town for years, and in 2008, Republican council member Mark Etre asked for a report on how much the town had spent on FOI requests over the course of that year.

“At my first meeting in 2009, Mr. Etre had requested cost analysis on what we paid out to review FOIs. And the most interesting part about it is we paid almost seven times the amount to our town attorneys than we did to our employees to actually get the information together,” Krupienski said.

The report showed that $1,034 had been spent assembling information for 12 requests, while $7,979 was paid to the town attorney to review whether the information could be released.

“That was just in 2008,” Krupienski said. “If you look at some of the descriptions, you wonder why they had to review it.”

For example, in August 2008, Democrat Michael Winkler requested the job description for several town employees, the salary scales for those positions, and the minutes of the council meetings at which those salaries were approved, Krupienski said.

The cost to assemble the information was $215, but $2,289 was paid to the town attorney “to determine that job descriptions that the Town Council adopts could be given to him,” Krupienski said.

Krupienski said that in November 2009 after Etre made the request, he suggested to the administration that they put forward an ordinance creating an FOI advisory board but nothing ever happened.

“Presenting this type of ordinance gives us the ability to train people, the departments themselves, so they understand what information they are allowed to release,” Krupienski said. “If it’s questionable, sure, get the town attorney to review it, but this takes that extra step out to see if we should give this away.”

But McCoy expressed skepticism about an advisory FOI board’s effectiveness.

“It really is an administrative function,” McCoy said. “FOI requests just take a lot of time, you can’t just give everything out. There’s portions of things that can be disclosed, but in limited situations.”

He disputed some of Krupienski’s figures, including $450 spent to determine whether the 2008 grand list was a public document.

McCoy said the request was far more involved than just the basic grand list overview, and the line-item expense doesn’t accurately reflect the depth of work involved.

“We have a limited amount of staff and we only have so much time to do things, so we use the attorneys,” McCoy said. “It won’t save any money, you still have to review all the stuff before you give it out, and you don’t want to disclose information that’s private or end up getting yourself into a lawsuit.”

He disputed Krupienski’s assertions about the FOI board’s functions, and said the board would be most helpful if it could perform secretarial tasks.

“If these people are going to be sorters and doing all the work for free, that would be a benefit,” McCoy said. “I don’t think we’ll save any money but they want to do it.”

Still, Krupienski, who is an assistant town clerk in South Windsor and formerly worked in the Vernon town clerk’s office, was adamant that town employees should have more autonomy when it comes to requests for information.

“The clerk is aware of what her public records are and what can be released. Just about everything she has can be released: contracts, collective bargaining agreements, land records,” Krupienski said. “By not having the other departments educated in that, we’re spending more money than we need to.”

He also said that because FOI costs were compiled only for 2008, “we don’t know how much more was done prior to that, or since. That’s the big question, how much more are we spending that we really don’t have to?”

The council will take up the issue at its meeting tonight, and is expected to set an April 5 public hearing on the ordinance.

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