Editorial: The right to know

Wilton and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have not always had a happy relationship. But there is counseling underway, so there is hope for improvement.

Earlier this month, the chairmen of Wilton’s boards, commissions and committees were invited to attend — or view — an FOIA training session with new Town Counsel Ira Bloom during the Board of Finance’s televised meeting on Jan. 17.

In his discussion, Bloom stressed that the FOIA applies not just to the town’s designated public agencies like the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance or Conservation Commission but also to their subcommittees. And subcommittees don’t have to be official subcommittees; they can be two or three people who undertake to do work for a public body.

In all cases, such meetings should be properly noticed with an agenda, notes should be taken, and minutes should be produced and filed with the town clerk within seven days.

Bloom also reviewed what does and does not constitute a meeting. A meeting occurs any time a quorum of a public body gathers to discuss or act on public business over which it has jurisdiction. A meeting can take place in person or electronically, such as by conference call or even via email. However, as Bloom pointed out, such meetings may not be properly held since the public would likely be unable to participate. He warned officials against texting one another on town business and reminded them their emails are subject to FOIA requests.

Chance meetings of commission members, such as at someone’s home or the supermarket, do not constitute a meeting. But things like site walks do, and they must be properly noticed with minutes produced.

The issue comes up because of FOIA complaints lodged against the town regarding meeting notifications. These types of complaints are easy to avoid, and the Board of Selectmen is to be commended for including three training sessions with the new town counsel as part of his appointment.

The penalties for violating the Freedom of Information Act can be severe. The FOIC can reverse the decision of an agency and it can assess fines. Anyone who wishes to review the act may do so by searching the Connecticut General Statutes for 1-200-241.

The preamble to the act declares that “secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know …”