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Dear FOI commissioners, please make port authority comply

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission is scheduled to consider at its meeting Wednesday a complaint I filed in August requesting emails between the Connecticut Port Authority and its media relations consultant, Loren Dealy Mahler, an associate of former authority board Chairman Scott Bates, who engineered a $6,500-a-month contract for her.

In asking for the emails, I hope to find out exactly what she did for all that money, since I never saw a sign of her doing any work with the news media.

By the time a hearing officer heard my complaint in December, the port authority had not supplied a single email over those four months, a response the hearing officer called "outrageous," the worst she said she had seen in 14 years with the FOI Commission.

I have 10 minutes to make a final argument at the meeting, as the commissioners consider the hearing officer's recommendation for an order demanding compliance, over a period of up to six months. Here's what I hope to say:

To the commission:

Thanks for your consideration of this matter. I appreciate the opportunity to bring to your attention to the abysmal lack of compliance with FOI laws by the port authority, long before it was engulfed by scandal last summer.

The refusal to acknowledge public access to information has continued even through the more recent period of intervention by Gov. Ned Lamont and multiple investigations and audits.

My first experience of the authority's contempt for FOI laws was last spring, when I asked for the engineering study associated with a drawing of a drastically reconfigured State Pier in New London, which had been circulating publicly.

Andrew Lavigne, another associate of Chairman Bates, who was hired by the authority at a salary of more than $90,000 despite having no relevant experience, told me there was no engineering study, that the drawing was a one-off, a stand-alone image commissioned by an artist to show what might be done.

This seemed like a lie at the time, since the drawing was obviously depicting elaborate engineering and building plans, not a single rendering by an artist. Sure enough, I later saw a report of the full study after it was submitted as part of a permit application.

In my 40 years of reporting, I don't recall ever being so directly lied to in response to an FOI request. Incredibly, Lavigne, until he recently went on parental leave, remained the port authority staffer in charge of responding to FOI requests.

In response to another request I made more recently of the governor-managed port authority, I received only two documents after asking for all material related to the ordered leave of the executive director, who never returned to the job. The two documents did not give a reason for his leaving.

How could there be not be a written record of such a significant job action? Is it really possible they gave me everything and there is no written record of why he left?

A request I made for the agency's legal bills, about $1 million of spending, were so heavily redacted, apparently by the lawyers themselves, they were totally unreadable. My complaint is still pending, after I rejected a second offering with a few less redactions but still essentially impossible to follow.

The port authority rejected an FOI request made over the summer for the signed memorandum laying out plans for the $93 million deal to remake State Pier. The governor's office also refused for weeks to provide it, finally relenting last week under pressure from The Day's Editorial Board.

Now, the commission has a chance to send a message and put an end to the port authority's lies, procrastination and defiance of FOI laws.

A brief in this case, filed Jan. 10 by one of the authority's expensive private lawyers tasked with fighting FOI compliance, suggests the commission overrule the hearing officer's proposed decision in regards to redactions.

Please don't let the lawyers redact the consultant's emails the way they blacked out almost all of the details of legal bills charged at rates up to $800 an hour. The time for producing redacted emails from the consultant, which would have been subject to appeal here before this body, should, as the hearing officer suggests, be over.

Also please ignore the lawyers' pleading that the port authority is understaffed. It has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. It could have hired from the outset someone to process FOI requests instead of lawyers to fight them.

There has been no testimony or evidence in this case from the port authority itself about the number of emails at issue or attempts made to comply. The board chairman said publicly Tuesday, at the 11th hour, that there are thousands of emails at issue, but there was no testimony from his agency when a hearing was held on the request more than four months after it was first made.

Indeed, the commission has no direct evidence to consider about the size or nature of the requested documents.

Please consider an order demanding immediate compliance, not the extended six months proposed by the hearing officer.

This is 2020. A database search of the requested documents and emails could be conducted and made into an electronic response within days, if not hours — not weeks and months.

There have been no offers from the authority to negotiate a settlement and provide access to the emails as they could be made available.

I have faith the commission will decisively affirm the right of the public to know, in a timely way, how its money is being spent.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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