Long delays at Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission leave public in the dark
Many requests for government records are left hanging in limbo for months, frustrating transparency advocates and citizens alike.
Two years ago, a mystery was unfolding inside Avon Town Hall.
Long-time police chief Mark Rinaldo was abruptly placed on leave in November 2019, and town officials were tight-lipped about the decision, saying only that allegations had surfaced about his conduct.
Rinaldo retired a few months later, signing anagreement that allowed him to cash out more than $80,000 of unused time off, and three months’ worth of additional severance pay.
Watching from one town over, Farmington resident Joseph Sastre wanted to know more about the reasons behind his departure. Sastre, a lawyer who frequently uses the state’s open government laws to access public information, contacted the town manager with a request for documents.
“It really got me wondering how much of the police department's time had been devoted to whatever was going on,” Sastre said last week. “If they're distracted with something other than police work and public safety, I think that the public has a right to know.”
Under state law, citizens have the right to view a wide range of government records, from police reports to emails and body camera videos. But getting them isn’t always straightforward; the law contains numerous exemptions, which allow public officials to keep sensitive materials out of public view.
In Connecticut, an independent body called the Freedom of Information Commission plays a key role in settling disputes over whether records should be released.
In Avon, town officials provided Sastre with some of the relevant documents he requested — including a copy of the severance agreement with the chief — but said they would be withholding one document because they didn't believe it was a public record.
The records Sastre did receive were silent about the allegations against the police chief, and he believed the public has a right to know what happened, so he filed a complaint with the FOI commission to determine if the town was inappropriately withholding the record.
During the hearing before the Freedom of Information Commission, Avon Town Manager Brandon Robertson attempted to make the case that an 11-page log and photo of troubling incidents that another town employee observed of the chief was not public because of attorney-client privilege. The town manager is not an attorney, but told the concerned employee he planned to share the log with the town’s attorney.
That attorney, Michael Harrington, said the town's not interested in sharing what happened.
”For us, it's very important the town resolve this issue without making it a further issue. And that included not only not publicizing the nature of the allegations, but also not even publicizing the individual" who created the log, he said.
The FOI commission eventually determined the log was a public document.
But it took more than a year and a half for the commission to reach that decision, which was finalized in November 2021.
That long wait isn’t unusual. A review by Connecticut Public found it usually takes the commission around eight months to issue decisions in contested cases. And once the pandemic hit, that time shot up to more than a year.
Mike Savino, a reporter at television station WFSB, and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, says those delays have an impact.
“If you win, suddenly, how valuable are those public records if it's two years after the fact?" he asked. "It's creating a situation where things that you should be entitled to, to highlight what a public agency is doing, they may not even be relevant anymore.”
State law gives the commission one year to process each complaint. But that deadline was relaxed during the pandemic. The commission is now working to address what it calls a serious backlog of cases.
Executive Director Colleen Murphy told Connecticut Public the agency aims to reduce the time it takes to render decisions, but it’s unclear how quickly that will happen, given its limited resources.
“Eight months we think is too long,” Murphy said.
Over the last decade the volume of complaints being filed with the commission has been on a roller coaster — ranging from 660 to 941 — though spending and staffing levelsremained largely unchanged.
At the same time, cases have grown more complex as state and local governments adopted a host of new measures in response to the pandemic. More cases now require an in-depth review of the records at issue, which can span thousands of pages. A somewhat new state law also allows public agencies to seek relief from frivolous requests, which has increased the workload.
The commission is also facing pushback to filling a vacant attorney position to help with the "serious backlog," according to a request it submitted to the governor’s budget office earlier this year.
The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont stripped that request out of the budget it sent to lawmakers. The commission contends that’s a violation of state law since the governor is not supposed to alter the commission’s requested budget -– a power that rests instead with the legislature.
"It's very problematic for us in terms of trying to ... do better by the people of Connecticut," Murphy said.
"We're talking about information, information that's important to people," she said.
Officials at OPM did not respond to a question from Connecticut Public about why the staffing request was removed.
State Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly believes the commission’s process is too slow.
“I think that diminishes the public domain,” Kelly said, “and it needs to be rectified.”
Kelly uses open records laws to get information from state agencies. When he was denied access to communications about a controversial health insurance merger back in 2016, the Republican legislator filed a complaint that eventually landed in court.
When these documents came to light four years later, Kelly says it was too late.
“We shouldn't be able to use a Freedom of Information Act to withhold information through dilatory tactics so that people don't have timely information during a public debate," he said.
If the public agency or person seeking the records doesn’t like the commission's decision, they can appeal the case in state court — a process that can tack on several years to getting access to information.
About 20 commission decisions are appealed in court each year.
The Avon police chief case was one of those cases — and so Sastre is still waiting to find out why the police chief retired so abruptly.
Avon’s town manager declined to answer questions about the case, and instead referred to the town’s court filings. Rinaldo, the former police chief, did not respond to requests for comment last week.
“As much as it feels good, in this case, to be handed a victory of sorts, well, look where it got me,” Sastre said. “I still don't have the documents. And it's two years later.”
Before the commission's hearing officer ruled on the case, she pointed out how unorthodox it is for a town to keep something like this secret.
"It's kind of unusual to have a public official, like a police chief, put on leave and not be able to understand what underlies that decision. I've never seen it," Valicia Harmon said during the hearing. "It's unusual for someone of that level, or anybody, to be placed on leave or suspended, and for the public not to understand the underpinnings of that.”