A decision by Connecticut’s highest court requiring state agencies to redact the addresses of certain officials from public records will hurt watchdog efforts by residents and members of the press, an attorney for the state’s Freedom of Information Commission said.
The Supreme Court of Connecticut's Tuesday decision in Commissioner of Public Safety v. Freedom of Information Commission extended an exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Act requiring the redaction of addresses of certain public officials to town assessor property logs that have historically been public and unredacted.
The decision has far-reaching applications to thousands of similar public record logs that have never before been subject to the exemption, likely hurting efforts to maintain government transparency and accountability, said Lisa Siegel, counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.
“It seems as if in one fell swoop they just wiped away hundreds of years of policy that requires public records to be open,” said Siegel, who argued before the court that the exemption should not apply to records that have historically been public.
The decision centered on a conflict between two laws regarding disclosure of public records. The first law requires that town assessors publish an accurate and complete listing of property records, including the addresses and names of property owners, known as "grand lists."
The second law requires the state to redact the addresses of local and federal public safety officials, judicial officers, certain state-employed attorneys and others from records obtained under the state’s FOIA.
The case began when an individual used the state’s FOIA to request a copy of motor vehicle records used to prepare the grand list. When the town clerk handling the request redacted addresses he believed fell within the FOIA exemption, the individual appealed to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.
The commission ruled that, because the records were part of the grand list that was required by law to be unredacted and available for public inspection, the addresses were not subject to the FOIA exemption. The ruling was upheld by a trial court before being appealed to the Supreme Court of Connecticut.
In looking at both laws, the court ruled that the FOIA exemption should also apply to the grand lists, requiring local officials to redact the addresses of those individuals covered by the exemption.
It's not directly clear from the decision whether the FOIA exemption applies to only the grand lists or all similarly held records containing personally identifying information of government officials. Siegel said she believes the exemption applies to property records, voter registrations rolls and many other public records kept by local officials.
Historically, Connecticut's laws require that those types of records be complete, unredacted and open to the public for inspection, Siegel said.
The purpose behind the grand lists being open and complete is to allow people to verify that they are being taxed fairly compared to others, which increases public confidence in government, Siegel said.
The new requirement that local officials redact the addresses of certain individuals from those records will likely decrease public confidence and also harm other uses of public records, Siegel said.
“Without the integrity of those lists, we’re really going to create havoc,” she said. “If you can’t verify an address on a deed, what do you do? If you can’t verify a voter enrollment list, how do you have faith in the integrity of your political process?”
Efforts to maintain public accountability will also be harmed, as, for example, it will be more difficult to tell whether taxes are being applied fairly to particular state officials without viewing the full tax ledger.
Additionally, many municipalities have residency requirements for their employees. But, without the addresses of those individuals being public, it will be hard for the public and members of the media to identify violators, Siegel said.
Also left unresolved from the decision is how local officials will determine which addresses to redact, Siegal said. The officials covered by the exemption have no duty to notify officials that they qualify, meaning the task will likely fall to local town clerks. That could impose a much greater burden on those officials, Siegel said.
Siegal said she is hopeful that the legislature will intervene and clarify that the FOIA exemption does not apply to public records that have historically been complete and open to the public.