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Court Ruling Protects Judges, Harms Free Flow of Information

UPDATE – Apparently, I got this a bit wrong – Malloy has a bill and Donovan has a bill. And they are antithetical.  See what Christine Stuart wrote over at the Junkie.

Worshipping at the altar of the police damages our society.

This time, it’s the black robed justices of the Connecticut Supreme Court toeing the thin blue line. And maybe the governor’s office has an answer.

The effects of rulings the Supreme Court made last summer interpreting the Freedom of Information Act has, among other problems, made it virtually impossible to obtain a copy of the registered voters database from the Secretary of the State’s office.

By federal mandate, thanks to the Help America Vote Act, the Secretary of the State’s office must keep a centralized database of all registered voters.  And, HAVA demands that the Secretary of the State not alter the list in any way. Although that page is now gone from the SOTS website.

In past years, upon request, the Secretary of the State will offer a compact disc of this list of some two-plus million names, addresses, party registrations and voting districts for like $300.00.

This list is essential for political operatives. Once a political operation feeds the names into a database, that campaign can generate walk lists, mail lists, voter histories and monitor voter contact.

Since at least 2006, every few years, the Green Party of Connecticut has purchased a compact disc containing the names of all registered voters, and placed it into our own database.

Being a small party, this database proves vital for candidate support. Green Party bylaws also require the party co-chairs annually to send out a ballot for internal Green Party elections to every registered Green in the state.

This year, since I am co-chair of the Green Party, and we have to run an internal election to elect co-chairs of the party at the end of April, I tried to purchase a copy of the list. We have the $300.00.

I was sent to Ted Bromley, an attorney in the Secretary of the State’s election division. He said no. I went up the ladder.

Peggy Reeves, the director of elections at the Secretary of the State’s office, suggested I use another state law and obtain the names of the 1,800 registered Greens from all 169 registrars of voters. It would be the same if I wanted lists of Republicans or Democrats.

While we are working on that solution, and have obtained some lists, aside from the data entry issue, some registrars may give us the same answer the Secretary of the State did: no. Why?

Commissioner of Public Safety, et al, v. Freedom of Information Commission, SC 18617,  in which the Supreme Court combined four cases about public access to lists – like grand lists of taxpayers assets.

At issue was one of the ten or so exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act, specifically, Connecticut General Statutes Section 1-217, non-disclosure of addresses of residential addresses of judges, police officers, Department of Corrections employees, certain attorneys, Division of Criminal Justice inspectors and firefighters.

Before the court was the question of mandatory redaction. Who decides who to redact? Is the state supposed to supply a list of all state cops to every town? This law isn’t new, and the confusion surrounding it has been dodged for years.

The legislature passed this exception to the FOIA for the safety of the law enforcement community. I think it is a load of hokum. If I wanted to track down, say, the chief of police in a town, I would not need to go to the town hall and find his address on the grand list.

A real determined person would stake out the police station, or some other place the cop is known to frequent. For example, back in 1997, when I was a daily news hack in Torrington, I did just that.

It was known that the chief of police was on leave for heart and hypertension issues. It was also known that he would stroll into his favorite watering hole on East Main Street every day for a few brewskis at 5 p.m., quitting time if he was at work.

I set up shop in my little Honda Accord across the street in the gas station and took pictures of him walking in and walking out said bar. Heck, my girlfriend at the time and I went in and even had a few beers with him. He had no idea.

The newspaper chickened out and never ran the story. But the incident shows that no amount of protection can secure you.

Or consider that if you had last year’s list, which was unredacted, and then got a redacted list. It wouldn’t be too hard to figure out who was a cop and who wanted to be left off.

We have to take risks in a free society. One of those is open access to information. And if cops don’t like it, they shouldn’t be cops. What’s the old saw? Those who would trade security for liberty deserve neither.

The Freedom of Information Commission is a little more conservative than I, and argued for a workable interpretation of redaction, since things like grand lists should be accessible, and there should be effective ways of deleting the names.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Sarnoski argued on behalf of the Commissioner of Public Safety, and demanded complete redaction. Astute readers of this column may recognize his name.

Sarnoski attended the Darth Vader School of Constitutional Law. He was the lucky lawyer who defended the state police officers in the false arrest lawsuit I brought after I was targeted and arrested at M. Jodi Rell’s Inaugural parade in 2007.

For full disclosure, I currently have a complaint pending before the Office of the Claims Commissioner alleging that Sarnoski helped to fraudulently conceal police officers’ destruction of documents in my case.

He originally filed an appearance to defend the complaint with the Claims Commissioner, but a new attorney from the AG’s office recently replaced him. Yet that is another story. I just wanted readers to get an idea of the characters in this situation.

Our guy Sarnoski went before the Supreme Court and pled the paramount case of safety of police officers and judges. Geez, that’s a hard argument to win when you’re in front of, say, judges.

The Supreme Court bought Sarnoski’s snake oil and ruled in November that lists need to be redacted.  But the Supreme Court failed to include an instruction manual on how to do it.

Gov. Dannel Malloy understood the depth of the issue, and thanks to Sandra Staub of the ACLU-CT, I received a copy of page 30 of Governor’s budget:

“Another court ruling has interpreted statutes to require that all public agencies redact the names of certain public employees.  This is unworkable in that it would require public agencies to redact names they don’t necessarily know on every document. It could cripple the ability of officials to meet their duties under the law, and puts them in conflict with other statutes which prohibit the alteration of public records.”

I think that describes pretty effectively the situation I am experiencing in gaining access to the registered voters database.

Governor’s Bill No. 5035, an Act Reducing Mandates for Municipalities, would amend the offending section of the FOIA to demand affirmative steps by the police officer who wants to hide.

Essentially, if passed, the bill will force cops and firefighters and judges to submit a written request for nondisclosure of their residential address to their department head.

The heaviest hitters in the legislature introduced this bill – Speaker of the House of Representatives Chris Donovan, Representative Brendan Sharkey and Senate president Donald Williams  and Senator Martin Looney.

This, to me, makes it seem like a sure thing the bill will pass.

But it doesn’t help me right now.

 

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