Shame on New London for trying to hide blight records

In my many years of reporting, I have seen lots of public officials try hard not to release public documents, sometimes contorting like pretzels to claim some exemption from the Freedom of Information laws that are meant to ensure we have open and transparent government.

There are, of course, lots of reasons why government officials don't want to release some documents and information, especially when disclosure can reveal their own shortcomings or bad decisions.

An open democracy can be inconvenient and even messy.

But in all my years of reporting, I have never seen such a blatant and egregious assault on open government as the decision by New London's director of development, Felix Reyes, to withhold information on the city's blight enforcement actions, which properties and owners have been cited, when and for what.

Reyes was stonewalling much of March on an official request for the blight enforcement records.

The city only began to relent, suggesting the records would be made available in the future, when the city law director finally wrote to The Day this week after a story detailing Reyes' denial was published, responding to an FOI request first made March 6.

Reyes didn't even bother, when first asked for the information by a reporter with The Day, working on a story about blight published this past weekend, to cite what exemption to FOI laws he believed allowed him to withhold this important enforcement action. Without that, it's just arrogant breaking of open-government laws.

Reyes did suggest in the news story he might make some of the blight information available, on a case-by-case basis, to individuals who ask directly. He said in the story he didn't want to release the names in a way they would become public, because it could shame people.

As for who can see the list, would he select people whose names begin with R, maybe, to see the information, or people with blue eyes? Would only his friends and associates get to see?

I find it hard to imagine how someone who got to be a development director of a small Connecticut city could think it's appropriate or legal to selectively share public records to only those you deem worthy of looking at. This is blatantly contemptuous of the concept of open, honest government.

What's more troubling is that these are public records relating to enforcement actions against property owners. Indeed, the city has gone so far as to prosecute blight as a criminal matter, as its ordinances allow.

A government taking enforcement action secretly is making strides toward authoritarianism. The Nazis used to come for people in the night. There were no warrants or arrest records for the public to check. People just disappeared.

Not disclosing enforcement action by the city, civil or criminal, violates the same principles.

Citing someone for violating the law, fining them or taking them to court are all things a government needs to do in an open and transparent way. Someone who doesn't understand that should not have a leadership role in a Connecticut municipal government in 2019.

Of course, I believe New London officials may really be more interested in hiding not who is being cited for blight, but rather who isn't.

I made a visit to the building office Tuesday, in light of the law director's suggestion the reports would be made public, and a follow-up by Reyes saying the same thing, but I was told the blight officer was not in that day and no one else could produce a list of blight enforcements unless specific addresses were requested.

When asked, I was told there have been no blight citations for the abandoned and badly blighted building owned by Renaissance City Development Association Board member Bill Cornish — a Democratic Party stalwart and political contributor to Mayor Michael Passero — that burned last week. Before the fire, it was the most glaring instance of blight I could think of, in the heart of the redevelopment site the city and RCDA are trying to market to developers.

It's not like the blight isn't an enormous problem in downtown New London. And the city's tougher new blight rules, which take effect soon, are evidence of that.

Hiding blight enforcement actions is no way to correct the problem. Indeed, if secrecy is meant to protect obvious and frequent offenders, the downtown is doomed to its current state of neglect and disrepair.

Quite the contrary, blight citations made public should be a deterrent, just the way the publishing of names of people arrested for driving under the influence of liquor surely must keep many intoxicated people away from their cars.

Let's hope the law director's sense on this issue prevails, and the blight records are henceforth made available on a timely basis, the development director's recent public comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

I suspect that even New London school students, chosen randomly, could tell city officials they can't hide documents about enforcement actions.

That means you could go after your enemies and protect your friends, and no one would know.

That's not the way America is supposed to work.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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