Karen Florin: Let the sun shine on public information
Mar. 17—At any given time, reporters at The Day ― and at professional news outlets throughout the nation ― have multiple Freedom of Information requests pending with government agencies.
We took a sampling of the newsroom's current FOI requests, since this is Sunshine Week, when we celebrate the importance of open access to public information.
Right now, our reporters are using the state's so-called sunshine law to obtain information about a medical investigation, disciplinary actions against local police and fire officials in two towns, fatal boating and car crashes, body camera footage, whistle blower complaints about the Connecticut Port Authority, and audits of the Norwich Public Schools and East Lyme Public schools.
The First Amendment, and the Freedom of Information laws enacted to uphold it, are the cornerstones keeping the public informed and upholding government accountability.
The Day's editorial staff is doing its part, too, to uphold these crucial public access laws. Managing Editor Izaskun E. "Sassy" Larrañeta, who will become executive editor on April 1, serves as the treasurer of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government.
"It is critical to keep governments accountable and transparent," Larrañeta said. "Everyone should have access to public information and when officials want to withhold public information, then alarms bells should be ringing."
Carlos Virgen, assistant managing editor for audience development, is on the executive committee of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
"It's important that organizations like NEFAC and CFOG continue to advocate for stronger open government and records laws," Virgen said. "These organizations are not only looking to expand these laws, but also want to make sure that existing laws are being upheld by public agencies. At NEFAC, our Connecticut committee is regularly having these conversations and looking for ways to educate the public about these issues and also hold government agencies to account when necessary."
I was recently appointed to the Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information and I'm coming up to speed on the council's positions on proposed bills before the General Assembly, many of which seek to limit public information.
Fighting for public access is an ongoing battle which we are obligated, and proud, to engage in.
Reporter Elizabeth Regan told me about an FOI request she made in December 2022 to the East Lyme School district for invoices and purchase orders related to the district's response to an alleged computer virus that forced the district to shut down the internet for weeks. She was told there had not been any quotes submitted for the work, and she asked that her FOI request remain open pending the receipt of documents related to her case. Regan said she hasn't heard anything yet.
"Sunshine Week is a reminder that I cannot let a lack of cooperation from public officials keep me in the dark," Regan wrote in an email. "It's up to me to follow up and follow through. Otherwise, we'll all forget. And that's what some officials count on."
As Sunshine Week comes to a close, we hope we shed light on the important work of maintaining strong public access laws.
This is the opinion of Karen Florin, engagement editor. Reach her at email@example.com or (860) 701-4217.