Category Archives: Transparency/FOI

A Sunshine Week Question: Why Are Evaluations of Public University Professors Kept Secret?

by Categorized: Education, Employment, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

I began teaching a journalism class at Central Connecticut State University this semester, with the taxpayers and students’ families picking up the tab for my modest salary. At some point, I imagine the school will evaluate my performance, and when that happens, it will be the official policy of the state legislature that it’s none of the taxpayers’ business whether I’m doing a great job or a crummy job.

If you teach in a public school in Connecticut, from Kindergarten to a Ph.D. program, state law deems that records of your “performance and evaluation” are off-limits to the public that pays your salary. I was given a stark reminder of that today, just as transparency advocates are wrapping up “Sunshine Week,” a national campaign highlighting the importance of open government.

Today happened to be the day I was provided with a large number of documents I had requested from the University of Connecticut, which included the draft of a review of Robert Miller, the former UConn music professor now under the microscope for allegations of sexual misconduct that spanned decades.

The evaluation runs 28 pages – 19 of which have been blacked out completely, and the rest of which have no more than a sentence or two visible. There is a list of “Dr. Miller’s Strengths” and another of “Dr. Miller’s Weaknesses” – but they have been almost entirely blacked out. There is a section marked “Comments from the Faculty” – immediately followed by a page and a half of black boxes. Under “PERSONALITY ISSUES,” the report notes that neither the review committee members nor those interviewed are trained psychologists, but the rest of section, taking up nearly two pages, is completely redacted.

This isn’t the university getting overly exuberant with a magic marker; it’s just following the law.

As I’ve written before, a move to keep teacher evaluations secret began 30 years, resulting in the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Legislators were persuaded that parents would use evaluations to shop for the best teachers and pressure schools to place their children accordingly – though every parent I’ve ever talked to already knows who the great teachers are in their schools.

And even while the bill was pitched as a way to prevent teacher-shopping, the final language covered all professional staff in a public K-12 school except the superintendent. Assistant superintendents, principals, librarians – all covered by the law putting their performance evaluations off limits.

And before long, that sort of secrecy started looking good to those in higher education. And in 1989, a similar statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

And that’s why the document below is mostly black boxes.

Transparency advocates would like to change that. I’ll start with my eval. If and when CCSU gauges my performance, I’ll be happy to send a copy to anyone interested in reading it.

Malloy Opening Up the Data Mines

by Categorized: Data, Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed an executive order today designed to take some of the massive piles of data held by the state and move them onto an easily accessible website where researchers can dive in.

“This data belongs to the people of Connecticut, and this initiative will help make that data more easily and conveniently accessible to them,” Malloy said, expressing a sentiment not always championed by government officials.

The executive order instructs the state’s executive agencies to identify a first round of datasets that will be made available on what is being dubbed the Connecticut Open Data Portal, at data.ct.gov. Agencies have been told to look for data that is reliable, already in electronic form, frequently requested by the public and free of confidential information.Malloy told the departments to also consider whether disclosure of the information would “improve agency accountability and efficiency, enhance public knowledge of the agency’s operations, or create economic innovation and opportunity.”

Agencies have 90 days to come up with that first list.

Tyler Kleykamp, who works for the Office of Policy and Management, will l lead the enterprise as Chief Data Officer (not to be confused with the television character “Data,” who was a chief officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise).

The initiative builds on the state’s transparency website, which already provides data in searchable and downloadable form on the state’s payroll, pension, contracts, grants and payments. And it’s part of a larger trend of freeing “big data” for analysis by researchers, journalists and business interests. States maintain enormous amounts of data on everything from health care spending to educational performance to highway safety. And more and more of it is seeping into the public domain.

“Timely and consistent publication of public information and data is an essential component of an open and effective government,” the executive order proclaims.

But as it moves to place that information online, the governor’s office also said it would safeguard private information, and said the initiative “does not apply to any protected data that, if disclosed, would violate state or federal law, would endanger the public health, safety or welfare, hinder the operation of government or impose an undue financial, operational or administrative burden on a state agency.”

The way officials interpret those parameters may determine just how public all that public information really will be.

When Winning Equals Losing at the Freedom of Information Commission

by Categorized: Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

Wrenching a stack of public documents from a government agency that prefers to operate in secret can be a long and frustrating process, from the initial request for access, to the final hearing before the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.

But for requesters with the law on their side, the long trek typically ends with the satisfaction of finally holding that stack of documents.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But at a hearing Thursday, the FOI Commission considered three separate cases in which it found that agencies should have released a variety of requested records – while simultaneously ruling that the Commission was powerless to do anything about it.

The culprit in each case: time.

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Government Officials And The Urge To Tell Reporters To “Pound Sand”

by Categorized: Government, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

A few years ago, a Courant reporter emailed a routine Freedom-of-Information Act request to a certain large central-Connecticut municipality, and the reply that ended up back in her Inbox included – most definitely unintentionally – the entire string of emails that was created as the request bounced around various city departments.

The gem of that email string was a brief question posed by the city’s attorney, who asked one of his deputies: “Helen, take a look at this FOIA request. Any feelings re our capacity to tell [the reporter] to go pound sand?”

We got the records – this attorney was famously ill-informed on FOI matters and “Helen” was kind enough to explain the law to him – and we chalked this up as a one-in-a-million goof. But it turns out it’s not entirely uncommon for public employees to inadvertently reveal their plans to disregard transparency laws.

The latest case involves Washington, D.C., television reporter Scott MacFarlane, who asked the federal government for a variety of records related to last September’s attack at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 dead. Instead of the records, the FOI officer last week sent him an email – intended for another Navy official – with a surprisingly detailed strategy for minimizing the amount of information the government would have to release to the public.

The email laid out a few scenarios for asserting that it would be impossible to fulfill MacFarlane’s request for photographs and memos, with ideas for turning MacFarlane down altogether or persuading him to narrow the scope of the records he wanted.The FOI officer discounted much of the request as a “fishing expedition,” but regarding a request for emails sent on the day of the shooting, she wrote: “this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny.”NavyTweets

MacFarlane promptly posted an image of the email – along with the Tweet: “EPIC FAILURE- U.S. Navy accidentally sends reporter its strategy memo for dodging his FOIA request.” In addition to 1,800 re-Tweets, that prompted an apology from the Navy, which also took to Twitter to insist the agency is thoroughly committed to transparency and the “vital role” of the Freedom of Information Act – the actions of its Freedom of Information officer notwithstanding.

The Navy episode got reporters on a Freedom of Information list-serv talking about similar email snafus. When a Florida reporter asked the IRS for information related to a problem with direct deposit of tax refunds, a tax official accidentally wrote back: “The reporter also wanted to know how many taxpayers are affected by this situation. I’m trying to avoid answering the question but I’ll bet someone knows the answer.”

A reporter in Washington state once emailed questions to the county sheriff, with a cc to the press officer. The sheriff hit “Reply All” and, thinking she was writing to her aide, simply asked “Who is this jerk?”

Government officials often find it more convenient to operate in secret. But that’s not how things are supposed to work in a Democracy. Have your own FOI horror story? Or having trouble accessing public records that you, after all, own? Let us know. Our contact form is always available.

A Journalist’s New Year’s Resolution: If You See Something, Say Something

by Categorized: Ethics, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

In these early days of the year, when we’re all vowing to hit the gym or give up smoking or call our mothers more often, I’m hoping there’s room for one more New Year’s resolution, one that’s as easy to execute as it is to remember.

For 2014, let’s all pledge: If you see something, say something.

No, I’m not talking about speed-dialing the Department of Homeland Security to report that suspicious Burger King bag you saw on Metro-North. I’m talking about building the partnership that exists between media outlets and the communities they reach. It’s a tenuous partnership at times, but it’s more important than ever.

News outlets have always depended on sources – from average citizens to the deeply connected – and for investigative reporters, that communication is critical. So when things are amiss in your community, when institutions are failing those they serve, when greed or bias gets the better of politicians, when injustice reigns, let us know.

Last month, the Courant reported that at least 15 college students awarded aid by the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation between 2005 and 2008 had received less money than they were promised. The students did their best to harangue scholarship officials, with little success, and years passed before someone thought to alert the paper and prompt the sort of action that transparency and publicity often brings. But by the time we were on the story, it appears the Foundation’s coffers were empty. Imagine if we had known about the problems years earlier.

The Courant breaks a lot of news and we have excellent sourcing. But it could always be better. And it could hardly be easier. Have a tip? Call me at 860-241-6741 or send an email to our investigative blog, at thescoop@courant.com, or use our online tip form.

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post once asked former Vice President Al Gore how much the press and the public really knew about what went on in the Clinton White House. Gore’s reply: “One percent.”

That doesn’t serve democracy. Sunlight does.

If you see something, say something.

Santa Favors Government Transparency

by Categorized: Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

OpenTheGovernment.org, a pro-transparency coalition that promotes “less secrecy, more democracy,” is out with a naughty-and-nice list of politicians and government entities that have upheld or obstructed the notion that the people’s business is the people’s business.

NaughtyNiceGetting big presents under the tree this year are two members of Congress – California Republican Darrell Issa and Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings – who last March unveiled the “FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013.”

The bill has several provisions designed to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, including a requirement that agencies process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness. “It places the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information may be withheld, instead of on the public to justify release,” the lawmakers said. The legislation would also require agencies to post frequently requested information online and would establish a central portal for requesting federal records.

And getting huge lumps of coal for 2013? No surprise: The National Security Agency, which relied on secret court rulings for its massive surveillance program.

See the entire list of winners and sinners here.

Sedensky Formally Drops Appeal on Newtown 911 Tapes

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III Wednesday formally abandoned his argument that state law gave him the authority to withhold recordings of 911 calls made during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, ending a nearly yearlong battle that highlighted tensions between transparency and privacy.

The Freedom of Information Commission had ordered the tapes released, and they were made public a week ago after a judge ruled he would not keep them secret pending an appeal by Sedensky of the commission’s ruling. Although Sedensky could have pursued the legal arguments even after the tapes were released, he dropped the appeal Wednesday, submitting a one-page form to the court declaring that he was unilaterally withdrawing the suit.

After the Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request for tapes of the 911 calls, Sedensky ordered Newtown police not to release them. Although such tapes are routinely provided, Sedensky argued to the Freedom of Information Commission that the tapes were legally exempt from disclosure because their release would harm a prospective law-enforcement action and because they contained confidential evidence of child abuse and were the equivalent of signed witness statements.

The FOI Commission unanimously rejected those arguments and Sedensky appealed to Superior Court, asking Judge Eliot D. Prescott to stay enforcement of the commission’s order to release the tapes while the appeal was pending. Prescott turned him down, declaring that parts of Sedensky’s argument “bordered on the frivolous” and amounted to a claim by the prosecutor that the tapes are exempt from disclosure “because ‘I say so.’ ”

The tapes became a raw battleground in the emotional aftermath of the mass shooting, with some family members of those killed urging that the recordings never be made public and some transparency advocates saying prolonged efforts to keep them secret had merely fed conspiracy theorists and exacerbated the families’ anxiety over their release.

Prescott wrote that media attention following release of the tapes would probably be “a searing reminder of the horror and pain of that awful day.” But he said access to the tapes would also allow the public to evaluate the response by police.

“Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials,” he wrote.

The tapes revealed the terror inside the school in the moments after the shooting began and the steely resolve of several staff members as they alerted police. Officers arrived quickly, although five minutes passed before the first entered the building. Sedensky said that with initial reports of multiple shooters, the actions of the earliest responders was appropriate.

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

More Frustration at Privacy/Transparency Task Force

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The old adage that watching laws being made is like watching sausage being made was on display Wednesday during a 2½-hour meeting of the state’s Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know, at which frustrated members found themselves struggling with parliamentary bureaucracy and entrenched disagreements.

Half-way through the meeting, after a lengthy and complicated series of motions and amendments, Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap tried to suggest a way to move toward a vote on a proposal by state Victims Advocate Garvin Ambrose.

“Once we dispose of the Storey amendment, then Ms. Mozdzer-Gil’s amendment is entirely in order, because it’s an amendment to your original motion, as amended to conform with Sen. Fasano’s proposal,” he said.

But by then, Ambrose had given up.

“I have a solution,” he said. “I’m going to take the entire issue off the table and just withdraw my motion completely so we can start fresh, because this is getting beyond ridiculous at this point.”

But it wasn’t quite so easy. Instead, the panel spent another two minutes discussing whether Ambrose could in fact unilaterally withdraw his motion or whether the full task force had to vote on whether or not the full task force could stop considering the issue.

The task force, which will make recommendations to the legislature, was created during the last legislative session, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and fears that records related to victims and witnesses would be released publicly. The same legislation that created the task force also temporarily amended the state’s Freedom of Information Act to exclude from mandatory disclosure “the identity of minor witnesses” in records created by police during criminal investigations.

State Sen. Leonard Fasano, a member of the task force, said at an earlier meeting that that language was added at the request of Bridgeport lawmakers in response to the 1999 murder of Leroy “B.J.” Brown, an 8-year-old city boy who witnessed a shooting and was killed before he could testify.

The boy’s name came out as part of the criminal trial, not as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the recent change in the law would have no impact on a similar scenario. But it has become something of a line in the sand between privacy advocates and transparency advocates on the task force.

Transparency advocates say existing law already allows police to withhold the names of witnesses of any age who might face intimidation or threats. Privacy advocates say minor witnesses and accusers deserve special protection and a presumption that their identities should be confidential, just as juvenile defendants are afforded special protections. During Wednesday’s meeting, those points were made over and over.

As the gathering neared the one hour and 45 minute mark, co-chairman Don DeCesare’s patience was wearing thin, as illustrated in the video below, from CT-N. DeCesare said the group was “bunkered in” and seemingly unable to move forward.

Forty-five minutes later, after a discussion of whether or not they had to take a vote on whether to take a vote, the deeply divided panel did in fact call the roll on a proposal to restrict access to the identify of witnesses under age 13 – but to make that information releasable once the witnesses turn 18.

The vote: Seven in favor. Seven opposed.

At Typically Genial FOI/Privacy Task Force, a Rare Burst of Frustration

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Technology, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The 17-member Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is typically a cordial bunch, despite having strong voices at polar opposites on the issues. Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, for example, evaluates victim privacy and media rights through a completely different lens than, say, James H. Smith, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. And Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey sits right next to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, leading to frequent side-by-side disagreements, but also to occasional friendly banter.

But despite the normally civil tone, the task force, created in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, “can be a pressure cooker,” Smith said. And that below-the-surface tension made a rare and dramatic appearance during a marathon hearing Wednesday, when a frustrated DebraLee Hovey, a task force member and state representative from Newtown, laid into a transparency advocate who suggested that civil laws might already address the sort of harmful behavior members of the committee were looking to curtail.

Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told task force members that relatives of the Newtown victims had seemed to indicate through their attorney that they were primarily concerned about graphic details of the crime being misused by those on the fringe who were intent on causing pain to the families. She said those actions could run afoul of laws already on the books that punish the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Hovey, who assailed Cavanagh’s perspective – and lawyers in general. You can view the exchange below, and watch the entire hearing on CT-N.com, the website of the Connecticut Network.

The task force was established by the legislature to “consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” Those recommendations are due Jan. 1.