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CT's Freedom of Information Act violation fines are now higher, but still rare

FILE, 1975: As governor, Ella T. Grasso prioritized creating Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act.
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FILE, 1975: As governor, Ella T. Grasso prioritized creating Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act.

Since 1975, Connecticut has had a Freedom of Information Act law giving any citizen the right to access most documented records created by state and local governments.

But as the technology and circumstances that created those records evolves, the FOIA law has had to evolve, too. Pullman and Comley Attorney Mark Sommaruga said the widespread move to Zoom meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant catalyst for that evolution.

“We all learned from those experiences,” Sommaruga said. “The legislature now has revised the FOIA to put in provisions now governing remote meetings in terms of how they take place and what notice must be required.”

Sommaruga has just released the updated sixth edition of his book “Understanding Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act.” He said another major evolution on state FOIA rules is the fines local officials are levied should they fail to comply with FOIA requests.

“Just recently, the fines that the Freedom of Information Commission can issue have been increased,” Sommaruga said.

The fine increase is a substantial one. In 2023, the state legislature approved an increase in the amount of a fine possible to levy on non-FOIA compliant officials from $1,000 to $5,000.

“That's pretty hefty. Because the thing is, most times when you become a public officer or an employee, if you're sued, generally speaking, the the town's insurance company will pay for your defense and if you have any damages, it pays for it,” Sommaruga said. “The [new] law is quite specific that the money from these fines comes out of the person's own pocket.”

While the fines have increased, violators of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act rarely have had to face paying one. The FOIC confirmed to Connecticut Public it only levied six fines for FOIA violations since 2012. Despite the fact that none of these six fines have been levied since Gov. Ned Lamont signed the fine increase legislation into law last June, Sommaruga said the new law has revised language in it that could result in more FOIA violation fines.

“Some of the language in terms of, for example, patterns or trying to stall or not be prompt may be subject to fines now,” Sommaruga said. “There's both an increase in the amount of fines and also an expansion of the authority when they can issue fines.”

Outside of fines, citizens can speed their requests along by employing brevity, Sommaruga said.

“If you request every e-mail in the possession of a town since 2005, it may take some time to honor that request,” he said.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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