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Reporter's Notebook: Taking a closer look at CT's Freedom of Information Commission

The Accountability Project Team (left to right) Walter Smith Randolph, Investigative Editor; Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Investigative Reporter; Jim Haddadin, Data Reporter.
The Accountability Project Team (left to right) Walter Smith Randolph, Investigative Editor; Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Investigative Reporter; Jim Haddadin, Data Reporter.

This is the first edition of our new Reporter's Notebook series which is a part of The Accountability Project'snew newsletter. You can sign up,here.

Thanks for subscribing to The Accountability Project’s new newsletter. We’re an intrepid group of reporters looking to shine a light on all things Connecticut. For the past year, we’ve been hard at work uncovering issues like why some tenants are being evicted even though they paid their rent and why a school safety panel formed after Sandy Hook is struggling to continue their work.A lot of our reporting is often tied to data and documents---especially from public bodies like police departments and schools. When it comes to investigative reporting, time is of the essence--- which is why in the first edition of this newsletter we’re highlighting our recent story about delays at Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission.

In Connecticut, the Freedom of Information Commission serves as a sort of referee between citizens and public bodies when a battle over documents emerges. When a Farmington resident was denied access to documents surrounding the resignation of Avon’s police chief, he turned to the FOIC but years later, he’s still entangled in the process.

Our team was able to find Joseph Sastre’s story by digging through data and spending hours going through opinions rendered by the FOIC. After running an analysis of FOIC decisions, we found it typically takes the commission eight months to issue decisions in contested cases and once the pandemic hit, that time shot up to more than a year.

It’s clear the FOIC needs more staff if they’re going to render decisions more quickly. But our reporting revealed spending and staffing levels at the commission have remained largely unchanged despite the number of complaints being filed going up and down. An interview with the commission’s director also revealed that the governor’s budget office removed a request for an additional FOIC lawyer from the budget---a move the commission contends is a violation of state law. A few weeks after our story aired, we learned lawmakers restored that budget request. While lawmakers tell us they took it upon themselves to do so, we’d like to think our reporting played a part in it too.

If you have a story you need investigating, email us at tips@ctpublic.org.

Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.

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