Conn. towns scrap websites

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By Lance Johnson

The Internet has a profound effect on our lives. We use it to work, to learn and to communicate. It has the capacity to bring us together, whether globally or within our neighborhoods.  So it seems reasonable that the Connecticut legislature would mandate that municipal agencies post the agendas and minutes of public meetings online in a timely fashion.

 

After all, how hard could it be? And does it make sense to get in a car and burn five bucks of gas to go to town hall to stare at a bulletin board? 

 

A law mandating that agendas be posted within 24 hours of public meetings and that minutes of those meetings be available to the public within seven days was already on the books, and enforced.  The only change was to ask that the same information be posted electronically by those municipalities with Web sites.

 

Now, in an unanticipated move, a number of municipalities have closed their Web sites altogether, citing fear that they’ll be in violation because they are unable to comply with the law.  Oddly, these communities are even more opaque by removing their online presence – the exact opposite of the intent of the legislation – and they may just get away with it.  They claim a lack of technology, money and manpower.

 

Not many people, I suspect, currently look at these documents.  And with today’s economic climate and a newspaper industry in the throes of upheaval, many of these small town meetings go uncovered.  So might it be possible, in the comfort of their homes or offices, that more citizens would take a look at what happened at last night’s meeting, who was behind the nays and yeas and why?  The potential for this added scrutiny just might be making town officials uncomfortable.

 

The legislation was developed over a three-year period by Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s office, though the state Freedom of Information Commission did consult with the governor’s legal staff.

 

Mary Anne O’Neill, deputy counsel to the governor, said Tuesday (Oct. 20) that the Connecticut Council of Small Towns has asked for an advisory opinion from the FOI commission and that the commission would consider the merits of the request at its meeting today (Oct. 21).  “I don’t believe it was the intent at all to impose some costly new mandate on the towns,” O’Neill said.  She made it clear that the writing of the legislation predated her arrival in the governor’s office.

 

I asked Atty. O’Neill about the towns that have closed their Web sites to avoid the law, and whether they might be viewed as being in violation.  No, she said, because they would no longer have a Web site, and the law states that towns with Web sites must comply.  By quitting public access, they may be absolved, oddly. 

 

That may not be the opinion of the state FOI commission.  Thomas A. Hennick, public education officer for the commission, said shutting down a Web site “may be a violation of a different kind – access denied.” 

 

“If the web site is available, it doesn’t mean they can flip a switch and make it unavailable,” Hennick said.

 

But no one seems to want to play hardball with towns that are truly struggling to make ends meet. He said towns that keep their online presence while working toward a resolution would in all likelihood be viewed favorably.  The commission has told communities that it would make its own information technology staff available to give advice to towns that want it.  Or they could call the local high school, not to talk to a teacher, but to student techies.

 

So far, no complaints of violations have been filed with the commission, but that may just be a matter of time.

 

In Voluntown, with a population of about 2,500, online users are greeted with a message from First Selectman Gil Grimm that states the town’s Web site has been suspended.  He calls the law an “unfunded mandate.” Hennick says that at least three other towns, including Lyme, Middlefield and Harwinton, have followed suit. Litchfield has also shuttered its site.

 

Meanwhile, the list of towns gone dark may grow.  Before that happens, the FOI Commission should help clarify the law.  And towns that reduce Connecticut’s sunshine law to a flashlight in the woods should have their claims of no money, no staff, no technology tested, and those that can meet the spirit of the law, should be made to.

 

Lance Johnson is on the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition and is the former executive editor of The Day of New London, Conn. He lives in Waterford, Conn.

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One Response to “Conn. towns scrap websites”

  1. kd Says:

    Although I share feelings of dismay and outrage that towns would take down their websites instead of simply posting their minutes online, if the larger Connecticut cities do comply perhaps the smaller areas will naturally join in over time.

    In fact, no extra technology resources are required to post agendas and minutes online. Perhaps towns don’t realize this. Not even a website is required!

    As long as simple email is available, it is very easy for anyone to set up a free email list group, such as a Google group. Agendas and minutes simply have to be emailed to the proper address. They immediately become publicly available, to anyone anywhere. They are automatically indexed and archived, at no expense. And anyone can subscribe to receive the messages, with no effort required by the town officials.

    If the towns do not choose to make this minimal effort to make public information public in a timely manner, local citizen volunteers could set up such a system on their own, posting materials gleaned by wheedling emails from officials or going to town hall to get copies of agendas and minutes, to be imaged and posted. After such a volunteer system was established, if local officials still refuse to participate they could arguably be prosecuted under the law based on the fact that the technology is in fact implemented and available to them for use at will.

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