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    Local Columns
    Thursday, July 25, 2024

    OPINION: New London’s lawyers bill taxpayers to block access to police cam videos

    I don’t think I am alone in finding the politics of New London often dysfunctional.

    But even in the strange world of New London decision making ― what ever happened to the wacky 2021 mega yacht port deal? ― the city’s wasteful new lawsuit against the Freedom of Information Commission is a doozy.

    I should mention right up front that The Day and I are also defendants in the city’s Superior Court lawsuit, which seeks to overturn a decision of the FOI commission ordering the release of New London police cam videos from New Year’s Eve 2021.

    I asked for the footage to test the new laws that grew out of the police killing of George Floyd, requiring that police wear body cameras so that the public could see more clearly how they do their work.

    New London proposed charging $628 in fees before releasing the videos to the newspaper, and then fought release of them all through a review of the pertinent law, with hearings and testimony, conducted by the FOI commission.

    When the commission finally ruled that the city is not lawfully entitled to charge a processing fee for the videos and ordered them released immediately, the city appealed to court. Papers were served on me last week.

    I emailed the mayor and all city councilors, when the issue first arose, to ask them to explain why city Law Director Jeff Londregan was authorized to conduct this expensive exercise in waging a lawsuit to block police transparency.

    Not one of them responded. New London politics are indeed dysfunctional.

    After all, it would seem that laws requiring police body cams, which grew out of a summer Black Lives Matter protests, were aimed at dense cities like New London, with their large populations of people of color.

    But New London of all places is thwarting what the FOI commission has ruled should be legal access.

    Police in mostly white Stonington, in contrast, announced they would assign personnel to make body cam videos available without fees.

    New London is not only stonewalling, but the city is spending a lot of money for what I would say is probably a long shot appeal of the FOI commission decision.

    The lawyers will profit, though.

    I tried to get a handle on exactly how much this lawsuit will cost taxpayers.

    But after reviewing a few years worth of city legal bills, which run in the tens of thousands of dollars a month, I now understand it is impossible to know.

    Many sections of the legal bills, which charge the city $150 an hour, are not itemized, so that, for instance, a review of an FOI request is lumped in with the charges for, say, reviewing a public works contract.

    In many instances there is no way for taxpayers to understand how much they are paying for itemized legal work, such as the preparation of a complaint in a lawsuit.

    It is clear from the bills, though, as you can add up $75 for phone call here and $25 to read an email there, that a full-on lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court is certainly going to cost at least tens of thousands of dollars.

    The best reason, though, for the city to abandon its expensive lawsuit, which has no certainty of success, is that the legislature has already taken up the issue.

    A bill now pending in the General Assembly ― supported by police chiefs and opposed by freedom of information advocates ― would permit the charging of some processing fees for body cam videos.

    New London, unwilling to abide by what the FOI commission has ruled as the law in releasing body cam videos, is also unwilling to wait for the democratic process to play out regarding the charging of fees for them.

    The city lawyers seem to have full license to keep their billing machine humming, whether or not that is in the interest of taxpayers or good public policy.

    This is the opinion of David Collins

    d.collins@theday.com

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