© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For a new Connecticut reporter, public records seem within reach

WNPR: Connecticut's public records laws are more open than some other states.
Getty Images
WNPR: Connecticut's public records laws are more open than some other states.

Kate Seltzer is the Howard Center for Investigative Reporting Fellow for Connecticut Public’sAccountability 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.

Kate Seltzer joined Connecticut Public as an investigative reporting fellow in January of 2023. She's also the co-host of the station‘s limited series podcast 'In Absentia'.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.