By JON LENDER, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
12:24 AM EDT, June 6, 2013
Lawmakers introduced at least seven bills to carve exceptions into the state Freedom of Information Act — and, while the most controversial one passed, blocking release of photos and videos of murder victims after the Newtown massacre, most of the others died.
Open-government activists said they were concerned about the continued chipping at the FOI Act but added that the 2013 legislative session could have turned out worse.
The Newtown FOI bill drew strong criticism over what it did and how it was drafted — kept secret from the public for seven weeks, until May 21, when The Courant obtained a leaked email revealing extensive behind-the-scenes discussions by the state's top prosecutor, the governor's staff and legislative leaders.
But after the House and Senate voted to approve the bill between 1 and 2 a.m. Wednesday, and the governor signed it into law 12 hours later, it stopped short of an initial proposal to protect Newtown victims' families by banning the audiotapes of 911 emergency calls — not just from the Newtown shootings, but in police cases everywhere. Those tapes are routinely released all over the country and are used by citizens and news organizations to evaluate police response to emergencies.
"We never like to see the FOIA opened" for further exemptions to disclosure, said Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association. But he added that the compromise language agreed on late Tuesday night was "narrowly crafted, considering what we were hearing in terms of proposals during the day."
The new law blocks release of images of murder victims but requires disclosure of 911 tapes in all criminal cases, including Newtown. It lets authorities withhold portions of tapes of emergency calls between law enforcement personnel when they discuss the condition of murder victims, and lets police block disclosure of the names of witnesses younger than 18.
The law also creates a task force to study the balance between victims' privacy and the public's right to know, between now and the 2014 legislative session.
Overall, VanDeHoef said, it's "workable," although he said someday a news organization will make a legitimate request for a homicide victim's photo when it's relevant to a story — and that request will be denied, throwing the issue to the FOI Commission.
FOI Commission Director Colleen Murphy said her agency "continues to believe that democracy functions better when its processes are not shielded from public view, and that this principle is particularly true when the process itself concerns the degree to which information will be open to the public. However, we appreciate the strong competing interests that drove this legislation."
Here's a list of other FOI-related proposals that died for lack of action by Wednesday night's adjournment in the House and Senate:
• Two bills to restrict the release of death certificates, both pushed by Newtown officials. It was left out of Tuesday night's compromise, said Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, who had proposed a bill to delay release of minors' death certificates for six months. But "we're not going to have these graphic images out there and upsetting the families and upsetting their healing. I'm satisfied with the compromise."
•A bill that would have blocked public access to files and hearings on convicts' applications for pardons.
•A proposal months ago by the Malloy administration to put the lawyers and investigators from the state's watchdog agencies for ethics, elections enforcement and FOI into a central pool under the supervision of a Malloy appointee, which the watchdogs said would destroy their independence.
•A bill to let the state police charge citizens $16 for a copy of a report on a car accident or investigation, and impose a 25-cents-a-page fee for merely reading a report.
•Bills to exempt the home addresses of state prison nurses and Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors from disclosure, in much the same way as addresses of police and judges are blocked.
In one setback for public disclosure of government records, a bill pushed by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo to create an online, searchable database for tax breaks and other state aid to corporations died in the Senate calendar – after winning House approval May 29. Malloy administration officials first criticized it. Later they said they were fine with newly negotiated language. Why Senate leaders didn't call it up for a vote was not clear.
Meanwhile, the insertion of 15 words in a massive "budget implementer" bill, approved in both House and Senate, apparently makes it impossible for the directors of the FOI, ethics and elections agencies to continue serving on a commission inside the Office of Governmental Accountability, or OGA. Those three have been at odds with the OGA's director, Malloy appointee David Guay. No explanation was given for the last-minute change.
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