Vernon FOI board proposal shot down on party-line vote
By Suzanne Carlson
VERNON — Town Council Republicans shot down a proposal to establish a local freedom-of-information board on Tuesday, arguing that volunteers are incapable of advising whether a document is public record.
Thomas A. Hennick, public education officer for the state Freedom of Information Commission, outlined the functions of the proposed board, which would have been composed of three volunteers trained by the state and tasked with providing advisory opinions about freedom-of-information requests filed with the town.
The ability for towns to establish such commissions was prompted by a statewide survey, which revealed that people are often “afraid to go to the state or ask the mayor, they’re just intimidated one way or another. … They knew they wanted to find something out but couldn’t,” Hennick said.
Unaffiliated council member James Krupienski put forth the proposal, and he has been agitating for an FOI board since 2009.
It was then that Republican Mark Etre, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, discovered the town had spent approximately $13,000 in legal fees on FOI reviews over the course of a year.
Many of the documents that were challenged or reviewed were found to be mundane requests for things such as meeting minutes, the grand list, and employee job descriptions.
“We need to make sure that we’re not having to pay for reviews of things that can easily be determined by properly trained staff, which really is our ultimate goal,” Krupienski said.
The state would have provided training to town staff and commission members, after which they could have then trained other employees in determining what is public, Hennick said.
Republican Daniel Anderson said establishing a new commission would be burdensome, because the town would have to post meeting dates, appoint members, and “monitor and worry” that they were fulfilling their duties.
He also was adamant that no one in town would be able to provide an unbiased, nonpartisan opinion, saying he felt that FOI board members would base their advice on political affiliation, rather than adhering to state law.
“That’s one of our problems we have in this town is that commissions usually break down along political lines,” Anderson said.
Republican Daniel Champagne, who is a public information officer for the town’s Police Department, said he went through FOI training and suggested that other town employees do the same, so they know what they are allowed to give out.
But many department heads have been instructed to direct all questions to the town’s administration, and in an effort to justify their opposition to the FOI board, Republicans contradicted each other on several occasions.
“I don’t think you should treat FOI requests willy nilly, where any department head can go and fill an FOI request. I think there needs to be controls, and I think there needs to be a policy statement by the administration,” Anderson said.
Democrat Michael Winkler blasted Republicans’ concerns, saying a proposed policy document would be redundant to FOI law and the top three town officials, who are all lawyers, provide financial benefit to their fellow lawyers by forcing requests to be reviewed several times.
“We have volunteers doing much more important things than deciding whether or not something’s public information. We have volunteers saving lives, putting out fires, … and you’re going to say a volunteer can’t decide whether something can or cannot be copied and given to somebody?” Winkler said.
Mayor Jason L. McCoy argued that it’s important for several lawyers to review all FOI requests because of the possibility that the information could create “types of situations that can create lawsuits or embarrass employees or whatever.”
But Hennick explained to McCoy that if a document is part of the public record, its potential impact on the town is irrelevant because the information must be released.
“And then your insurance goes up and all that other stuff, that’s our fault,” McCoy said.
When it came time to vote on the proposed commission, the motion was defeated 7-3 with all Republicans opposed and Krupienski and Democrats in favor.
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