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Hines Sight / Government secrecy tramples our rights

It astonishes me that in light of local, national and international events about government secrecy that there are continual attempts to curtail the free flow of information.

James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, once said, "A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

How right he was.

In case you've forgotten, this country was built on a quest for liberty.

But some government officials forget that they are servants of the public -- the ones who support their salaries and benefits with tax dollars.

That aside, the law always should guide government officials. Plain and simple. To be more specific, the Freedom of Information Act, which protects and promotes open government.

Over the last few years, Connecticut's FOIA, which always was hailed as one of the strongest in the country and provides citizens with open access to government records and procedures while protecting certain segments of the government and public, has been assailed.

One just has to read the final report of the "public access and accountability legislation" during the 2013 session of the General Assembly. Some proposals failed and others were successful, including a new law that restricts access to certain law enforcement records regarding homicides. The law was in response to the tragedy in Newtown and the desire to protect the privacy of victims and their surviving families.

A discussion of the merits of the law aside, what is disturbing is that the General Assembly passed it without a public hearing or a debate in the early hours of the session's last day, when the public wouldn't be in attendance or awake to watch on public access TV. So much for transparency.

But even more distressing is the volume of complaints filed yearly with the Freedom of Information Commission. Once you look at the list of commission's decisions, you'll see that most of complaints were filed by ordinary citizens. It's not just the press seeking government records.

Often, a government official's refusal to provide access to a record or document is based on emotion. We saw it after the Newtown tragedy when the town clerk denied requests by members of the press to view the death certificates. There was a subsequent attempt, thankfully unsuccessful, to restrict access to death certificates, as well as those for births and marriages.

Access to these certificates has righted wrongs. (On a personal note, I've viewed the death certificates for my family genealogy research and discovered that the majority of my ancestors on my mother's side died of heart disease. That's important information to know, don't you think?)

There are other instances in which government officials, often in law enforcement, have blatantly ignored the statutes. In New Canaan, for example, the police refused to provide the name or any other identifying information of an individual arrested in a domestic dispute for fear it would reveal his or her family members. The New Canaan News, a Hearst newspaper, filed a grievance with the FOIC, which sided with the publication and instructed the department to provide the information.

And I recently came across, by chance, something interesting, and a bit baffling. I was checking the correct spelling of the seller's name in a Fairfield property transfer through the Vision Government Solutions database. The "assessor's online database," as it's called, alerted me that "the information for this parcel has been suppressed at the owner's request." Read Full Article 

How is that allowed? While the information may be available in the assessor's office in town hall, and certainly the property transfer contained the pertinent information (seller, buyer, address and price), how can an agency that is an extension of town government be allowed to restrict access at someone's request?

It's wrong and would seem to violate the FOIA.

Access to records, documents, recordings or images allows the public (and press) to determine if government and law enforcement officials are performing their jobs in the public's best interests. In other words, are they doing what they are paid to do and doing it right?

After Newtown, the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know was established to make recommendations. Its final report, submitted to legislative leaders, was released Jan. 24 and can be found at www.cga.ct.gov/gae/VPTF/taskforce.asp.

Read it and judge for yourself if the recommendations strike a balance between privacy and the right to know.

Thomas Jefferson, the third man to lead this country, said, "I am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more."

Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed @patricia_hines on Twitter.

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