Efforts to revise Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during the 2023 regular legislative session were largely unsuccessful, with most bills dying when the legislature adjourned sine die on June 7.
Of the roughly 15 bills touching on reforms to information subject to disclosure or the public meeting portion of FOIA, only two passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate and is headed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk for signature.
SB 1221, which the House passed on the final day of the session, would increase the maximum penalty that can be assessed against FOIA violators and also gives the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) new powers.
The original bill would have increased the maximum civil penalty the FOIC could impose for FOIA violations from $1,000 to $10,000. It also would have allowed the FOIC to bring action in New Britain Superior Court against public agencies it found were either engaging in a pattern of conduct that amounts to an obstruction to the public’s right to access under FOIA or willful misconduct in denying or delaying responses to FOIA requests. Currently, when a complaint against a public agency is brought before it, the commission can either confirm an agency’s action or order it to provide relief it feels is appropriate to address its wrongdoing.
However, SB 1221 was amended by the Senate on June 2. The amendment raises the maximum civil penalty for FOIA violations to $5,000, rather than $10,000, and also makes changes to the FOIC’s ability to turn to the courts to enforce its decisions. The amendment instead allows the FOIC to impose a civil penalty of not less than $20 and not more than $5,000 against public agency officials. The commission can also “order other such relief that the commission, in its discretion, determines is appropriate to rectify such obstruction or misconduct and to deter such public agency from violating [FOIA].”
Further, if a public agency fails to comply with an order issued under that new stipulation, the FOIC can apply to the New Britain Superior Court for an order requiring them to comply.
The bill, having received favorable votes in both chambers, will go to Lamont’s desk for signature.
The House also voted to pass SB 1154 on the final day of the session. The bill exempts whistleblower complaints filed with the state auditor or under the False Claims Act from FOIA disclosure, expanding the existing law that exempts records of an investigation from disclosure. An amendment adopted by the Senate in May further expands the bill to specify that the name of anyone who provides information for a complaint about state agencies to state auditors is also exempt from FOIA disclosure. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for signature.
A number of other FOIA-related bills died when the legislature adjourned.
SB 1157 would have expanded the list of public agency employees whose residential addresses were exempt from FOIA disclosure to include all public agency employees. Currently, FOIA specifies groups of employees whose addresses are exempt from disclosure. The original bill would have also required public agencies that received a FOIA request concerning 50 or more employees personnel files to make a reasonable attempt to notify employees and their collective bargaining representative before disclosing the requested records, but this provision was removed by an amendment adopted by the Senate in May. The House voted to temporarily adopt the bill on June 2, but took no further action on the bill and ultimately did not vote on final passage.
HB 5796, which would have established a task force to study requiring a mandatory public comment period at all meetings held by public agencies, was amended and voted on by the House in May but did not receive a vote in the Senate. The House’s amendment changed the number of members who would have served on the task force.
HB 6906 would have required members participating remotely in municipal public agency meetings to be visible when voting or debating. The bill was placed on the House calendar in April and referred to the Committee on Planning and Development, which made no changes to the bill. It was then placed again on the House calendar on May 1.
SB 1153 would have amended FOIA to exempt records maintained by the faculty and staff of public higher education institutions for the purpose of study or research. It was amended and adopted by the Senate in May and placed on the House calendar but never received a vote.
SB 1155 would have implemented certain FOIA revisions recommended by the FOIC. These included limiting the applicability of FOIA’s definition of “governmental function” so that it applied only to a statute on contracts for performing government functions and defining cell phones as electronic recording devices under FOIA. It also would have brought FOIA’s law on trainings given by the FOIC in line with current practices, allowed the copying of public records using mobile phones or cameras, and allowed special meeting notices to be sent electronically. Further, the bill would have clarified what public agencies must be named in an FOIC appeal when a records request is denied under FOIA’s safety risk exemption.
The bill was placed on the Senate calendar in April but never received a vote.
SB 1222 would have allowed public agencies to charge fees for the redaction of records created by police-worn body cameras and dashboard cameras that were the subject of FOIA requests. It was placed on the Senate calendar in April then referred to the Committee on Appropriations, which reported the bill out without any changes. It was placed again on the Senate calendar in May but did not receive a vote.
HB 6912 would have allowed some election workers to request that their residential addresses be exempt from disclosure through FOIA and also would have prohibited some forms of intimidating conduct towards election workers performing their duties. The bill was placed on the House calendar in April and referred to the Committee on Judiciary.
HB 5037, a bill that would have required public comment periods at public agency meetings, was referred to the Joint Committee on Planning and Development in January.
HB 5938, which would have exempted the names and addresses of lottery winners from disclosure under FOIA, was also referred to the same committee.
HB 5995 would have specified that information by automated license plate readers could only be used for law enforcement and was exempt from FOIA disclosure. The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation in January.
SB 713 would have specified that completed and signed absentee ballot applications are public records and therefore subject to public inspection. The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections (GAE) in January and the committee drafted a bill on the subject in February. A public hearing for the bill was held on February 22.
SB 803 would have repealed portions of state statute that allow a public agency to hold a remote, electronic meeting rather than an in-person meeting. The provision allowing for remote meeting was passed during the June 2021 special session. The bill was referred to the GAE in January.
SB 1220 would have expanded the agencies whose residential address was exempt from FOIA disclosure to include judicial marshals employed by the judicial branch, employees of the disability determination services unit and the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services within the Department of Aging and Disability Services, and employees of the Office of the Attorney General. The bill was referred to GAE in March and had a public hearing
Without final action in both chambers, these bills died when the legislature adjourned on June 7.
This story has been updated.