For a new Connecticut reporter, public records seem within reach
Kate Seltzer is the Howard Center for Investigative Reporting Fellow for Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project. She joined The Accountability Project in January 2023.
I was recently asked if I had ever filed a Freedom of Information appeal. Sure, I said. Many times.
What I meant was that I had filed a Freedom of Information records request and had been denied, and then I objected to that denial. The public information officer might say something like “the records you have requested are exempt from public disclosure based on this statute.” And then I would respond and say something like “I disagree with your interpretation of how that exemption is applied. So do the courts; see this case for further information about why I’m right and you must give me access to those public records.” I’m more polite in my actual appeals, of course, but what’s important is that I’ve filed appeals with agencies directly. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t, and then the only recourse is to sue, which can be costly and time-consuming.
But that’s not how it works in Connecticut. Here, you can file an appeal with the Freedom of Information Commission, an independent body tasked with arbitrating disputes on whether records should be released. How delightful, I thought. A whole entity that has to take my angry emails seriously and could find in my favor before I ever have to set foot in a court.
The FOI Commission is not without its flaws. We’ve reported on how staff and funding shortages mean that the commission takes around eight months to decide on cases. Since we published that story, the commission has added a new attorney and appeals are moving faster.
There are some notable differences between public records access in Connecticut and Virginia, where I’m from. In Virginia, for instance, the requesters of public records have to be citizens of Virginia or journalists at an outlet that circulates in Virginia. But in Connecticut, FOIA applies to every person.
The fee structure is also different here; while Connecticut public agencies can charge $0.25 or $0.50 per page—even pages sent electronically—the commission held that additional fees are not permitted. Virginia only stipulates that a public body may impose “a reasonable charge” on requesters that can’t be more than what it costs to produce the records. Those fees can add up quickly. When I worked as a student journalist at the University of Mary Washington, I found FOIA requests could cost between $700 and $7,000 to fulfill. The Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press reports that on occasion, agencies imposed prohibitive fees to discourage requesters.
The fact that there is an overseeing body like the FOI Commission is itself a marked difference. So while I see room for improvement, I’m optimistic that Connecticut will remain committed to and grow its access to public records.
That matters because finding public records is a huge part of the work we do. It’s key to understanding how public agencies operate and what they value. At the time of writing, the TAP team has two appeals in with the FOI Commission—more on that to come but I’m hopeful that all of these efforts will result in a more accountable and democratic state.