Monday, April 30, 2012

East Hampton Board of Education to redo vote after illegal executive session

Last week, the East Hampton Board of Education listed an executive session "to discuss a personnel matter" on its agenda. When board members came out of the executive session, they voted "to accept the recommendation made in executive session."

In a letter to the school board sent April 24, The Middletown Press raised concerns that this was an illegal executive session due to the lack of specifics on the agenda and during the vote.

Kevin Reich, assistant superintendent of schools, has responded with a letter saying the school board will at its May 13 meeting redo the vote taken after the April 23 executive session and have added specifics to the agenda item to make it valid.

The agenda item will say "Personnel matter regarding the employment status of a teacher. Anticipated motion: To reaffirm the action taken at the April 23, 2012, meeting to execute an agreement between a teacher, the union and the Board." BOEresponse

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Your letter may become a public document

When the state Department of Education recently sought the public’s input on Gov. Dan Malloy’s proposed education reform, a friend of mine who works as an education manager at a nonprofit that helps schools build science programs sent in a letter sharing his thoughts.
Shortly after sending his letter to the state agency, he received a call from a reporter at the CT Mirror. He was somewhat taken aback by this, not immediately realizing that when you write a letter to a public agency, it becomes a public document.
In fact, anything you send to a public agency becomes a public document, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the second the agency receives it. Exceptions would be documents excluded under the FOI Act, such as those containing trade secrets, pending litigation or details about minors. But even then, the letter itself may be released to the media or the general public, with the exempt details redacted.
The section of the FOI Act that talks about public documents says “…any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency…” and goes on to say this is the case “whether such data or information be handwritten, typed, tape recorded, printed, photostated, photographed or recorded by any other method.”

CT Mirror reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas says in an email that she requested e-mails sent to the State Department of Education in response to the state's proposed ESEA wavier under the Freedom of Information Act and was granted access to view these documents the very next day.

One of these emails was from my friend.  And while  he was shocked at first, he said that deep down he had a suspicion his letter might be made public. He just didn’t reflect on it until he got the reporter’s call. And when he did, he willingly spoke to the reporter and ended up being quoted in this CT Mirror story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

East Hampton Board of Education holds potentially illegal executive session

The East Hampton Board of Education on Monday held a meeting and listed an executive session "to discuss a personnel matter" on its agenda. When board members came out of the executive session, they voted "to accept the recommendation made in executive session."

A quick call to the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford confirms that public agencies must be a tad bit more specific about their executive sessions. Boards must specify what type of employee is going to be discussed under "personnel matter." However, they are not required to identify such employee by name (but they must notify this employee that he or she will be talked about in executive session, and said employee can choose to have the meeting in public instead).

When voting on matters discussed in executive session, which must be done in public, the board must specify exactly what it is voting on (but again, they do not need to specifically identify an employee by name) and this vote must be recorded in the official minutes from the meeting.

The Middletown Press has requested - in writing - that the topic of the executive session and details of the vote be made public within four days. If not, the Press will file a formal complaint with the FOI Commission so it can determine whether this was an illegal executive session, which we believe it was. We will keep you updated on what happens.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Making Connecticut bright and shiny: Our grading scale

The Sunshine Grading Scale is the grading system Journal Register Company Connecticut journalists use to grade public officials, organizations and governmental bodies and their support of transparent government within the state. Access to public records – which includes promptness, accuracy, format and cost – is the main driver of the Sunshine Grading Scale.

The more “sunshines” an agency receives, the more likely they are to treat Freedom of Information and public records laws with care, and vice-versa.

*Opera singer clause – If the official or agency will benefit heavily from turning over the records, they don’t deserve the extra recognition. If, however, the records might make them look bad and they follow specific guidelines, they get an added sunshine bonus.

How it works:
One Sunshine – A public official or agency has numerous issues, excuses, complaints or refusals to public records, as outlined in the Connecticut General Statutes; lacks in prompt delivery of requests or access. It can indicate outrageous costs for public records. The only grade worse is the dreaded Rainy Cloud.

Two Sunshines – The official or agency might comply, but be hesitant, or provide incorrect records. Associated costs could be significantly or unreasonably high for the costly print-outs. This grade is equivalent to a D+ or C- in finger painting.

Three Sunshines – Congratulations! You’re average! This indicates turning over records correctly, at little to no cost, in a timely fashion, as outlined in the Connecticut General Statutes. The requested records have to be picked up in person, but face no reluctance by staff in handing them over. Unfortunately, mediocrity in transparency says a lot about this public outlet.

Four Sunshines –This level on the Sunshine Grading Scale means the public official or agency turned over the records in a prompt manner (before the four-day mark), OR did it within a reasonable timeframe and did it electronically. If you’re e-mailing or zip-filing records to us, you deserve the recognition.

Five Sunshines – The pinnacle of open government in Connecticut. Not only is the public official or agency transparent, but even albino bunnies would be jealous with how much Sunshine you can tolerate. The records were turned over within a very prompt manner, electronically, at no cost or complaint. You’re willing to hand almost everything – besides your social security number and PIN – to a journalist or taxpayer and do it with a smile. You’re a ray of sunshine in generally cloudy, rainy New England.