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Stop stalling, governor, release emails sought under FOI Act

Either Gov. Ned Lamont has something to hide or he doesn’t consider compliance with the state Freedom of Information Act a high priority. Either explanation is unacceptable.

Maybe it’s both.

Day columnist David Collins filed a request to the Lamont administration back in September for emails between Lamont or those in his office and David Kooris, chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority. That is a straight-forward request. It should not be hard to use a search mechanism to come with all such emails. There are various exemptions in the FOI law that prohibit some documents and communications from disclosure, or portions of them, but the law requires a public agency to reference those exemptions if it maintains they apply.

This is a process that should take weeks, not months.

Yet here we are, more than a half year later, and Collins has not received these public documents. Meanwhile, a major project proposed for the port-authority managed State Pier in New London — a massive state investment to convert the port into a hub supporting offshore wind-power development — is working its way through the regulatory process.

Is the administration stalling to release the communications only after the project is too far along to be challenged? Or, again, is it just a matter of the governor not making transparency a high priority?

Asked about the long delay, Max Reiss, the communications director for Lamont, wrote to me that the administration and its “legal team…have, I think, dozens of FOIs going back months.”

“I know our attorneys have been inundated with all kinds of FOI requests,” he added.

This is supposed to make us feel better?

If this is the case, then the administration needs a better approach to following the law. There should a system for expediting requests that clearly fall under the open-government law, such as communications between the governor’s office and a quasi-public agency created by the legislature, the port authority, for example.

Let the governor’s lawyers spend their time and our money on requests that may push the boundaries of the FOI law and could set new precedents. The right for the public to get access to the kind of emails sought by Collins is settled law.

The situation raises other concerns about how these matters are handled. Collins filed a complaint with the FOI Commission over the administration’s failure to comply with his request. But it wasn’t until February that the FOI office assigned an attorney, Danielle McGee, to explore a resolution short of having to proceed to a full hearing. But the needle remains stuck, as McGee has likewise been stonewalled by the Lamont legal team.

“I sent another follow up this week and have not heard anything,” McGee wrote to Collins last week.

The FOI office needs better staffing and better tools to prevent government officials from delaying for the sake of delaying. When the release of documents can take over a year — not uncommon — final disclosure may be largely meaningless, because public policy is settled or the public’s attention has moved elsewhere.

It is particularly troubling when it is the office of the governor that is stalling because that sets the standard for state agencies. The message should be that transparency is a priority, not an inconvenience to be dealt with when you get around to it or, even worse, something best to be avoided as long as possible.

Recall that early in his term, Lamont announced a partnership with the Dalio Foundation to help struggling students, with the foundation contributing $100 million, the state $100 million, and with $100 million to be raised by other contributing parties. But the administration drafted a law that kept the workings of the resulting “Partnership for Connecticut” exempt from the FOI Act, despite that large state investment.

This justly led to criticism of the arrangement, as worthwhile as its goal was. The partnership initiative was later abandoned. It raised a red flag about the administration’s commitment to openness.

This is not simply a matter of public officials versus prying reporters. The bulk of FOI requests do not come from the news media but from members of the public — an attorney trying to get at the facts for his client, someone concerned that his neighbors are not being fully informed about a project, a citizen suspicious that rules were not enforced equitably.

Produce the emails, Gov. Lamont, don’t drag this out any longer.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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