Lawmakers eye statewide changes to public records access after Hearst CT probe

In Bridgeport, city councilors question if Mayor Ganim’s reforms will be enough

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

State lawmakers are considering sweeping changes to improve residents’ access to public records statewide in response to a Hearst Connecticut Media Group investigative series detailing how the City of Bridgeport has repeatedly violated the open records law with little repercussions.

And within Bridgeport, local elected officials are questioning if reforms Mayor Joe Ganim announced just hours after the series published online will be enough to reduce the city’s massive backlog and speed up its processing of records requests.

“It’s troubling,” said State Representative Matt Blumenthal, co-chairman of the legislative committee that oversees the state’s Freedom of Information Act. “The stories indicate a disturbing pattern that we have an obligation to ensure does not become the norm in response to information act requests.” 

Blumenthal said measures he is considering include a funding boost for the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), which oversees compliance with the open records law, so it can process complaints about public officials breaking the law faster as well as increasing penalties and fines for agencies found in violation.

The law caps fines at $1,000, an amount that hasn’t been updated since 1984. The law also sets a high bar for when the FOIC can issue fines. So fines are seldom imposed. In the last decade, only six fines have been issued against any public agency.

“We do need to consider what powers or penalties will motivate entities to comply with their Freedom of Information obligation,” Blumenthal said. “The fines or penalties for non-compliance with Freedom of Information laws cannot be treated as just the cost of doing business.

State Sen. Marilyn Moore, who represents Bridgeport and is running for mayor against Ganim this fall, said the FOIC needs the ability to impose stricter penalties when agencies violate open records laws and fines need to be increased. 

Bridgeport has only been fined once over the last decade, despite the commission ruling the city had violated open record's laws 36 times during that time. Bridgeport was the subject of many more complaints to the FOIC over that span — 253 in total — but most were settled before reaching a ruling from the commission.

“There has to be some repercussions for towns that don't comply with the law,” she said. “John Q. citizen doesn’t get a break when he breaks the law. They expect us to follow the laws. It’s really annoying that they believe they can break the rules, and it's okay to break the law – and nothing happens to them.”

State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport

State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

State Senator Cathy Osten, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget writing committee, said she is also exploring ways to speed up the FOIC’s process, which suffers from its own backlog and delays.

“I'd really like to see us get caught up,” she said. “I want to make sure that the backlog is completely done.”

Osten is considering providing more funding for the agency to increase staffing.

“If you're taking too long, it limits people's confidence in the system – and that's exactly why I'd like to move this along a little bit,” she said.

Hearst Connecticut Media reported the commission often takes more than a year after a complaint is filed to process, hold hearings and rule on contested cases. That’s about four months longer than the commission took prior to the pandemic.

Last week, during an annual conversation with lawmakers about the FOIC’s fiscal needs, Osten asked the commission’s executive director, “We’re curious: When we will be at the point where we will not have a backlog?”

Sen. Cathy Osten

Sen. Cathy Osten

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy replied: “I would hope that by this time next year we would be in a much better position than we are now.”

Murphy said she believed much of the backlog and longer turnaround time was attributed primarily to cases filed early in the pandemic.

“We're trying to deal with those [pandemic-era] cases, but also the new ones that have come in have a one-year deadline, so we're trying to balance all of that,” she said. 

Murphy said her 16-person agency underwent significant staff turnover due to retirements and people leaving for other jobs recently. She plans to monitor how quickly the new team resolves cases to determine if the commission may need additional staff.

“This year will be a really testing year for us and we may seek some funding next year for” additional staff, Murphy told lawmakers.

Local reaction

City councilors in Bridgeport said they were happy to see Ganim announce changes aimed at speeding up the city’s handling of records requests, including plans to train staff in each department on how to process records requests to phase out its practice of funneling requests through the city attorney’s office, which generated a growing backlog of over 2,000 open requests.

But some questioned if the city will need to take additional steps to adequately improve its performance.

Budget Committee co-chair Scott Burns said whether there is enough funding to process requests quickly “has to come up” during this spring’s municipal budget season.

“At this point, I really don’t know the answer of whether more staffing is needed or it’s adequate (and) just the process needs to be different,” said Burns, who also criticized the mayor for taking so long to address the bottleneck, which the city had been aware of for years.

Fellow budget co-chair, Ernie Newton, agreed there should be a discussion about whether resources are adequate in certain departments to respond to record requests that staff will soon begin processing.

“It’s time consuming, you know? To get all the documents and everything that people need … It’s not like you can just mash a button and these documents appear.”

City Councilman Ernie Newton

City Councilman Ernie Newton

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

However, Council President Aidee Nieves said the changes Ganim announced should speed up the process enough and additional personnel are not needed.

“We don’t need to hire people to be ‘desk jockeys,’” she said. “We’ve got enough ‘desk jockeys.’”

Nieves said she wants to see Ganim advisor Edward Adams put in charge of ensuring the situation improves. 

Adams, a retired FBI agent, was supposed to run an office of government accountability when he was hired as a top aide in 2016. But that office, which would have taken on much of the responsibility for dealing with FOIA requests, was never formally created. Adams has worked in other roles instead.

City Council President Aidee Nieves

City Council President Aidee Nieves

Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

Some council members also wondered whether the city’s backlog may contain frivolous requests that are burdensome for staff to process.

Bridgeport has still not provided records which would show if that may be an issue; Hearst Connecticut Media’s FOIA for a copy of the city’s log of records requests has been pending since September.

And, state law, however, allows Bridgeport and other public agencies to petition the FOIC for relief from a so-called “vexatious requester” so that the city does not need to respond to their request. Murphy, the FOIC’s director, does not believe Bridgeport has ever requested relief from such requests.

Trouble continues for Bridgeport

This week, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission ruled in two separate cases that the city had violated Connecticut’s open records laws.

The commission ordered city officials to search again for records they claimed they could not find and to undergo more training; city officials have repeatedly been ordered to undergo additional training in recent years.

FOIC Commissioner Stephen Fuzesi Jr. said he hoped the latest round of training would complement the training and new process the city is rolling out.

“That should be a very timely event right now,” he said. “Maybe the new process will make things move better. I am sincerely hoping it will.”

Dina Scalo, an attorney for the City of Bridgeport, appears before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Council on Feb. 22, 2023.

Dina Scalo, an attorney for the City of Bridgeport, appears before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Council on Feb. 22, 2023.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/Hearst Connecticut Media Group

The changes Ganim announced Feb. 9 are supposed to be implemented by March 17.

For now, the old way of processing requests seems to continue, at least in some cases.

On Thursday, a city councilwoman’s months-old records request for the bids the city received on a large construction project in Bridgeport’s East End was forwarded by the department with those records to the online portal managed by the city attorney’s office.

“That’s where requests are sent to die,” said Councilwoman Maria Pereira, who has requests in that portal as much as three years old. “This is outrageous. Nothing has changed.”

Families continue to wait

Two families who are still waiting for public records from Bridgeport more than a year after their loved ones’ deaths are expected to meet with the city’s police chief next week.

Bridgeport Police’s failure to inform the families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls that these two Black women had died in separate incidents on the same day in 2021 led to national outrage and a change in state law last year that requires such notification within 24 hours.

Dorothy Washington, Rawls’ sister, said the police chief requested the meeting the day after the Hearst Connecticut Media investigation was published. This will be the first time anyone from the department has met with her family, she said.

Her family has been asking for 911 recordings, police reports, and an internal affairs report the department completed into how officers handled the case. Washington said her family hopes the police chief comes to next week's meeting with records they have been asking for. But she has serious doubts.

"I just don't think anything's gonna be available that day. In my opinion, I think they're just trying to smooth this over by meeting with us to keep us quiet," she said. "I just don't have any trust in the department to have the reports there for us.”

Brenda Lee Rawls

Brenda Lee Rawls

Contributed photo / Dorothy Washington