FOI Task Force Bill Swings Back Towards Openness
The Government Administration and Elections Committee stripped restrictions on public access to 911 recordings from a bill before voting on the controversial proposal Monday.
The committee leaned heavily in favor of public access when it adopted new language on a bill that sought to find compromise between open government and crime victims’ privacy.
The bill had been written to create a special class of public records, which the public could inspect but not copy. The language placed the burden of releasing those records on the person requesting the documents. A task force that proposed the recommendations in the bill called for recordings of 911 emergency calls and pictures depicting the bodies of homicide victims be included in this class of records.
Lawmakers removed language regarding 911 recordings from the bill, meaning the public will retain access to them. They preserved the look-but-don’t-copy policy for pictures depicting homicide victims but flipped the burden of proof so it falls on the government to explain why they should not be released.
Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the bill was changed in the interest of finding a compromise between the task force recommendations and Freedom of Information advocates who want the legislature to re-think changes lawmakers made to Connecticut’s public disclosure policies last year.
“There are people who want to repeal what we did last year. There are people who don’t want to change anything. We’ve tried addressing these concerns in the new language of the bill by leaving the 911 recordings where we did last year,” he said. “I don’t know that either side is going to be completely happy with it.”
The amended bill is the latest iteration in a legislative process set in motion last year, when lawmakers acted on the final day of session, and without a public hearing, to create special exemptions in the state Freedom of Information Act to protect the privacy of the family members of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. That action created a task force to inform legislation during this year’s session.
The task force worked for months on a report that many on the panel called a compromise. However, open government advocates and Senate President Donald Williams have opposed it saying it will reduce transparency in the criminal justice system. At a hearing earlier this month, Williams called the bill “counterproductive” and “destructive.”
But in the form adopted Monday, advocates of victim privacy feel the legislation has swung too far in the other direction.
“Based on this substitute language, I’d rather they just spike this completely because this doesn’t give us anything,” State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose said outside the committee meeting.
Access to photos depicting homicide victims has been completely barred under the law passed last year. Ambrose, who served on the task force, said the group’s privacy advocates allowed them to be inspected as part of a compromise that also involved including 911 tapes in the same class of records.
“The compromise is gone completely. If we knew that compromise was going to be gone, there’s no way that I ever would have voted on putting the photos back in. I would have just said ‘We have a stalemate’... and just keep everything as it is currently,” he said.
The bill passed the committee 8-6 with Democratic Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, voting against it. It now heads to the Senate and possibly to the Judiciary Committee, which has its own similar bill.