Bridgeport’s plan to fix transparency problem draws concern

BRIDGEPORT — In an effort to comply with a state transparency law it has long flouted, Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration is taking a controversial approach to reduce its massive backlog of pending requests for public records, raising concerns among state officials and First Amendment advocates.

As it wades through nearly 3,000 unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Bridgeport’s law department has sent notices asking requestors who have been waiting at least six months for a response to let the department know if they still want the documents.

The notices say that if the law department does not hear back within 30 days, it will cancel the request, closing it out without providing the records sought.

City officials said the move is intended to help the city weed out requests that may no longer be of interest because time has passed. Doing so will allow the city to prioritize which requests to focus on helping officials speed up their efforts to reduce the backlog.

But one state official said the city’s attempts to unilaterally close out requests may not be legal as did First Amendment advocate Michael Savino, who called the approach “ridiculous.”

“It’s unfortunate that they’re basically forcing people to opt in because the city can’t meet their obligations,” said Savino, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, founded in 1955 to promote open and accountable government. “Your FOIA request shouldn’t expire because the city can’t meet its obligations.”

“I don’t see how this would stand up legally,” Savino added. “There’s nothing in the law that allows this.” 

Over the past few weeks, the municipal law department has sent emails telling requestors: “Due to the age of your request, we are seeking your feedback as to whether you no longer wish to proceed with your request so that it can be closed for tracking purposes.”

As of April 20, the city had issued 259 such notices, Bridgeport City Attorney Mark Anastasi said in a statement issued in response to questions from Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

Many more people will soon get the same notice, he said.

“The City Attorney’s Office is releasing this correspondence in batches, due to the high volume of intended recipients,” Anastasi’s statement said. He did not specify how many more such emails will be sent out.

The state’s FOIA law gives residents the right to obtain copies of certain government records.

Frequently used by journalists, lawyers and local activists, it is an important tool to help hold public agencies accountable to taxpayers. For example, it can help residents get copies of police incident reports and body camera footage as well as records detailing government spending.

In early February, Hearst Connecticut Media published an investigative series outlining the Ganim administration’s record of stonewalling efforts to obtain public records, sometimes for years, and, as a result, violating the state’s transparency laws more often than other municipalities.

The series found the city had a growing backlog of open requests — from 1,800 in December 2021 to over 2,000 in November 2022 — after city officials testified of the rough size before the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC). Anastasi said there were “approximately 2,935 requests currently open” as of April 20. 

City officials have attributed the backlog to an increase in requests in recent years, a lack of resources and staffing and to the coronavirus pandemic that struck in early 2020 and for a time placed limits on municipal services due to health and safety precautions.  

Hours after the series published, Ganim vowed to address the problem, outlining a series of measures aimed at reducing the backlog and speeding up the processing of future requests.

But, whether city officials have the authority to close record request cases if they do not hear back in 30 days is unclear.

Anastasi said the move was “informally sanctioned” at a recent meeting between members of Ganim’s administration and staff with the FOIC.

But FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy in an interview for this article said closing records requests may not be legal. Even if it is, she says it does not fit with the spirit of the state’s transparency law.

“Perhaps what might have been better said in the letter is, ‘If we don’t hear from you, we may prioritize other cases first.’ That’s a little softer than saying, ‘We’re closing your file,'” she said.

Murphy said that in late March Ganim arranged a meeting in Bridgeport between himself, Anastasi and some FOIC employees.

“Which we thought was a very, very positive thing,” Murphy said. 

But Murphy did not recall discussions about automatically canceling FOI submissions if there was no response within 30 days.

“I think [Bridgeport and my staff] may have talked about the concept of sending a checking-in kind of letter with people. But I don’t think the [closing cases] was discussed from my conversations with my staff members.”

Murphy said she is not aware of any other public agency taking such a step during her 33-year tenure with the FOIC, the last 17 years as the executive director.

State law gives those requesting information 30 days to file a complaint with the commission after being denied access to records by an agency, or from when the request was made if an agency doesn’t respond with the records.

Murphy said there is no precedent she is aware of for whether an agency closing a long-pending submission is considered a denial that a requestor could file a complaint to the FOIC over and she is unsure how the FOIC would rule were Bridgeport’s approach challenged.

This would hardly be the first time for Bridgeport to test what is allowed and forge new ground on what constitutes a denial of an FOI request, Murphy said.

For example, when someone files a complaint with the commission, Bridgeport attorneys have argued in multiple cases they never denied someone records by taking too long to provide those records and attempted to get those complaints dismissed on those grounds. City attorneys have also argued that when they are ordered by the FOIC to provide records, they are free to redact them and that is not a denial because the person never complained that the records they had not yet seen were unnecessarily redacted.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the recent controversial move by Bridgeport reminded him of a similar case where Boston closed out requests for lack of activity before abandoning the policy.

Silverman said it is “reasonable” to reach out to individuals or entities that have long-pending FOI requests to gauge their continued interest.

“The problem is when they then don’t get a response and then automatically close out the request when the requester may in fact still be interested in the request,” he said. “That’s not a remedy to the problem. That’s just Bridgeport letting Bridgeport off the hook.”

The city attorney, however, said that because so much time has passed, the information might not be relevant and needed.

“Due to significant passage of time,” Anastasi wrote. “Certain still outstanding requests will now be considered as moot by the requesting parties, and substantive responses from the city will no longer be deemed necessary.”

“This procedure is intended to enable the city to prioritize those requests in our existing backlog still considered active and will result in the city more rapidly reducing, and eventually eliminating, the current substantial backlog of pending requests by prudently directing its resources,” Anastasi added.

Following the Hearst Connecticut Media investigation, Ganim, who had pledged a more transparent local government when first elected in 2015 and who is up for reelection this year, announced plans to “remove the bottleneck delay” by training staff in various departments to handle FOI submissions rather than funneling them all to an under-staffed law department.

Anastasi in his April 20 statement said training sessions were successfully held and completed the week of March 13 and additional dates were scheduled for later in the month.

“Naturally, the Office of City Attorney remains involved in the FOI program by continuing to facilitate the transition and by providing advice, guidance and training as warranted,” he continued. 

Murphy said she hopes the meeting with her staff at the FOIC and Ganim will put the city on the right path to giving the public timelier access to records.

“I guess we will see how that plays out,” she said. “We’re hoping this is going to be the beginning of really quicker access for people looking for information.”

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