Vexatious FOI complaints subject of new law

From left, Gail Lavielle, Tom O'Dea and Toni Boucher.
From left, Gail Lavielle, Tom O'Dea and Toni Boucher.

Citizens who routinely and repeatedly file Freedom of Information complaints over thin reasons are the subjects of a new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy June 7.

House Bill 5175 — An Act Concerning Appeals Under the Freedom of Information Act and Petitions for Relief from Vexatious Requesters — gives additional authority to the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether a FOIA request or appeal is vexatious and if so determined, grant relief to an aggrieved municipality or public agency.

An agency may petition the commission for relief from someone the agency alleges is a vexatious requester. Upon receiving the petition the commission shall determine whether, given the allegations, a hearing is warranted.

If it is determined that no hearing is warranted, the commission can dismiss the petition, said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), who voted for the bill. If, after a hearing, the commission determines the request rises to the level of a vexatious requester, it can grant relief to the municipality or public agency. That would allow a municipality or public agency to not respond to their requests for a period of a year, she said.

The law was needed, Boucher said, because there have been a number of individuals who have filed voluminous FOIA requests with the general assembly, public agencies, and municipalities.

“The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) testified at the public hearing that some municipalities are being inundated with requests that they believe are intended to harass public officials, waste municipal resources, or frustrate the day-to-day operations of the municipality as a whole or the targeted municipal agency such as a municipal police department,” Boucher said.

The Government Administration and Elections (GAE) committee was sympathetic to this but it did not want to infringe upon an individual’s right to access public documents, Boucher said.

“The GAE committee believes that granting the FOIC deference to specifically consider requests from municipalities and public agencies seeking relief from potential vexatious requesters is the best way to balance the right of individuals to access public records with the efficient administration of government by public agencies and municipalities,” she said.

Groups that supported the bill include the CCM, the Police Officers Association of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) also supported the bill.

The purpose of the bill was always to provide a procedure allowing the Freedom of Information Commission to grant relief to public agencies from vexatious requesters of information, Lavielle said. It was also necessary that the bill ensure the rights of individuals to governmental transparency and information access.

The original bill did not completely ensure that balance, she said. For example, it contained a provision requiring a $125 fee from individuals seeking to challenge an appeal by a public agency for relief to the Freedom of Information Commission. A number of the people who testified at the public hearing felt this fee was punitive and would interfere with individual rights to information. As a result, the GAE committee removed this provision from the bill that came before the full legislature.

The committee and the House made other changes that improved the bill as well, she said. These required public agencies to take more responsibility by providing clearer documentation of requests they considered vexatious when filing their appeals with the FOIC, and by providing appeals sworn under penalty of false statement. The FOIC must also take more responsibility by fully explaining its decisions on appeals. The House made further changes in this regard as well.

“While the original bill fell short in many respects, the final bill preserves individual rights and creates a framework for efficient government. It does this by encouraging judicious consideration regarding both the submission of information requests and agency appeals for relief, while promoting a climate of respect and civility among all parties. I believe this is why it passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate,” Lavielle said in an email, to which state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) said he agrees.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice shared a comment via email, seeing it positively.

“Connecticut’s Freedom of Information statutes serve to ensure that local and state government is transparent and open. That is a good thing. I am aware of instances within some municipals of what was or is perceived to be an abuse of the statutes. It is certainly reasonable to have remedies when and if such abuse does occur,” Vanderslice said.