How a new law and “gotcha people” forced one Conn. town to shutdown its website

2009 March 18
by Attorney Mark Dumas

Last week, I told you about a great website created by the State of Utah that provides a centralized source for browsing and searching public meeting records for just about every state and local government entity.  I also mentioned that I would write more about the controversy surrounding Connecticut’s efforts to require local government notices to be posted online.  Today I will cover the the change in the law that started the controversy,  Public Act 08-3.

Public Act 08-3 amended Section 1-225 of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act to require that all “public agencies” post their meeting minutes, notices, and schedules on their websites.  In Connecticut, public agencies are broadly defined to include almost any government entity, including small towns and even some arts commissions.

In response to the change, many small towns cried foul, saying that the requirement was an unfunded mandate and that it was not feasible for towns that have volunteers manage their websites.  Harwinton was one of those towns and rather than absorbing the costs of a paid webmaster or a team of lawyers to defend FOIA complaints, the town shut down its website on October 1, 2008 — the date the new law took effect.

Harwinton First Selectman Frank Chiaramonte explained the town’s decision in testimony before the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee on February 2nd.

I just wanted to preface my remarks by saying I’m all for giving out as much information as we can to our residents and the citizens of the state of Connecticut. What happened to us was we took down our website, actually, the day that the law went into effect. We happened to have a selectmen’s meeting, and we quickly realized that we were not going to be able to conform to the act, the seven days for posting the minutes and 24 hours for posting agendas.

We have a volunteer technology committee that was — that put the website up and was also putting the information on the website. One in particular, is somebody who is extremely busy, has his own — working his business, and was out of town a lot, and so the minutes got put up when they could. We had just defended two FOI complaints and we felt that we could not — we did not want to do that again. One of them cost the town, the taxpayers of the town, quite a bit of money to defend and we decided that we would take our website down before we had any complaints.

I think every town probably has some person or people who are the gotcha people, and as soon as you do something that is not on — in this particular case, in a timely basis, then they want to get you for it. And we decided it was time to take it down.

As of today, the Harwinton website is still dark, but several bills before the General Assembly may help change that, including one bill, SB-772, that I will discuss in more detail tomorrow.

Of course there is another solution that will provide online access to these public records without forcing an unfunded mandate on Connecticut’s cities and towns: a statewide public meeting notice website.  As I mentioned on Friday, Utah does it and as, I wrote in this Sunday’s Connecticut Post and Danbury News-Times, Connecticut should too.

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