Old Saybrook fights release of police exit interview
Old Saybrook― Police Chief Michael Spera is suing the state Freedom of Information Commission to prevent negative comments about him from going public.
An Aug. 9 appeal lodged in New Britain Superior Court by Spera and the Old Saybrook Police Department asks a judge to reverse a Freedom of Information Commission decision that required the chief to hand over a copy of an exit interview to the officer who wrote it.
That person is former Old Saybrook police officer Justin Hanna, who resigned from Spera’s department in March of 2021. Two months later, he filed a formal request with Spera for a copy of his own personnel file and written exit interview.
Hanna this week said the exit interview contains a lot of the reasons he left the department for East Lyme, where he’s been working since he left Old Saybrook. He described the document as a rare written record of problems that are typically “negotiated away” behind closed doors through union grievances or contract enhancements.
“No one usually ever finds out about some of the issues that happen there,” he said. “Because of that, I put a lot of specific examples in the exit interview.”
He said one of the reasons he requested a copy was to ensure it hadn’t been “altered, redacted or modified in any way.”
The case comes amid allegations from some former officers that there’s more turnover in the Old Saybrook police department compared to other law enforcement agencies.
Hanna said Spera fulfilled most of his request for personnel documents – except for the exit interview. It took the chief two months from the initial request to respond that the document was exempt from disclosure. That’s when Hanna made an official complaint to the Freedom of Information Commission about Spera’s refusal to release the document.
Neither Spera nor his attorney, Patrick McHale of the Hartford-based Kainen, Escalera & McHale, returned calls for comment.
McHale in a separate motion asked the judge to order a stay preventing the release of the exit interview while the case is pending.
Spera and the police department allege the comments and opinions in the exit interview, if they get out, could be “potentially embarrassing and humiliating” to Spera on a personal and professional level.
The appeal points to the draft decision written by the Freedom of Information Commission’s presiding staff attorney for the case, who conducted a private review of the exit interview.
The hearing officer, C. Zack Hyde, in the draft decision raised the possibility that “some of the information contained in the in camera records may be harmful to the chief’s reputation and that of the respondent police department itself.”
But he said harm to a person’s reputation doesn’t play into the legal standard judges use to decide if something invades someone’s privacy or not.
The final decision approved by the commission removed any reference to Hyde’s characterization of the exit interview as something that may be harmful to the reputation of the chief and the department.
Freedom of Information Commission spokesman Tom Hennick said the agency is in the process of assigning a staff attorney to litigate the case. The commission now becomes the primary defender of the case, not Hanna.
“We made the decision, so we would defend it,” Hennick said.
‘Defamatory and otherwise harmful’
One of the exemptions to the state Freedom of Information Act allows public officials and agencies to refuse to release personnel and medical files that constitute an invasion of personal privacy.
McHale argued in the May hearing that disclosing the exit interview would be defamatory and otherwise harmful to Spera’s reputation.
Hyde’s final decision was upheld by the commission in July. Hyde based his draft decision on an almost 30-year-old precedent, known as the Perkins test, that puts forth a two-part test for determining whether a request for personnel records constitutes an invasion of privacy.
In order to withhold personnel documents, the test requires a public employee to show that the information is not a matter of public concern and that a reasonable person would be highly offended by its release.
Hyde in his report said the exit interview – which Hanna acknowledged during the hearing contained negative comments and opinions – related to the chief’s official duties and responsibilities and therefore was a matter of legitimate public concern.
In the memorandum outlining the need for a stay, McHale wrote that an exit interview is for gathering feedback on jobs, getting constructive suggestions for improvement of the department, and sharing views on supervisors, workload, and benefits.
“Mr. Hanna used the exit interview as an opportunity to express his opinions, make defamatory statements, and attempt to discredit Chief Spera,” the document said.
The plaintiffs also argued the exit interview isn’t a matter of public concern because it was discussed by the Police Commission in accordance with a Freedom of Information exception that allows agencies to meet behind closed doors when discussing employee performance.
Hyde quoted from the Perkins case when he noted people have “a right to know not only who their public employees are, but also when their public employees are and are not performing their duties.”
Hanna reiterated that Spera’s fight now is against the Freedom of Information Commission instead of against him.
“I think it’s kind of alarming that he’s spending the taxpayers’ money to battle the state of Connecticut on something that was not really a contested issue at the hearing,” he said. “But if the taxpayers are okay with it, have at it, I guess.”