Is Everyone Abusing the Freedom of Information Act in Greenwich?

FOIA. It’s a noun. But it’s just as often used as a verb.

On the federal level, since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency.

Here in Connecticut the CT Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1975. It features a series of laws that guarantee the public access to public records and public meetings of governmental bodies.

FOI is a vital part of democracy and a tool journalists rely on to keep government accountable to citizens.

It’s also the reason Greenwich Free Press is able to publish property sales and arrest reports.

And it’s the reason public meetings in town hall can be recorded and photographed by attendees.

It’s also the reason candidates challenging an incumbent for public office send FOIA requests to the incumbent for their email lists.

It’s not exactly a secret that the Parks & Recreation Dept’s email list is repeatedly FOI’d. It is likely a good one because it includes residents with a park pass enabling them to ride the ferry or go to the beach.

Leading up to the Nov 7 municipal election, FOIA was also the reason voters were surprised to receive numerous emails and even text messages to their cell phones from candidates not affiliated with their own party asking for their vote or their donation.

FOIA is also the reason why on Nov 10 many Greenwich residents found themselves in receipt of an email from the head of Greenwich’s Parking Services Dept, Deputy Police Chief Kraig Gray.

In an email to parking permit holders and others on the wait list for permits, Deputy Chief Gray explained that in response to an FOIA request, his department had been legally obligated to release their information.

He said he felt the recipients had a right to know about the FOIA request and the town’s response.

“We sought guidance from the FOI Commission and were informed that the requested information is releasable,” he wrote. “We have no technical recourse to prevent its disclosure. We take privacy and data protection seriously and will continue to prioritize the security of our community’s information while following the law.”

Deputy Chief Gray also shared his correspondence with the requester, Andrés F. Ruiz, dating back to July when Mr. Ruiz said that per the open records law, he expected a response within 4 business days, and warned that a willful violation of the open records law was a Class A misdemeanor.

Mr. Ruiz offered to pay “reasonable copying and postage fees of not more than $100.00,” and said he preferred the information in the form of an Excel file.

On Aug 17 Ruiz said he would pick up the data in person at the Dept of Parking Services at town hall, which he did.

The fee was $26.

But then the process hit a snag.

On Aug 22, Ruiz wrote Deputy Chief Gray to say the email addresses were missing.

“There appears to be a mistake on the flash drive that you sent to me. Much of the public contact information has been redacted,” he wrote, adding that he had filed an FOI Complaint with the state.

In his response, Deputy Chief Gray explained he valued transparency as well as safeguarding individuals’ privacy, especially given concerns about identity-related crimes.

Gray suggested finding a “middle ground” that would suit Mr. Ruiz’s needs and protect the privacy of individuals.

On Sept 26, Mr. Ruiz wrote back, “I assure you that the information I seek will be used in a lawful way that is not intended to present risk or expose others to potential physical or financial harm.”

Ruiz then said he would be satisfied with, “at a minimum,” first name, last name, email address, town/city.

In the end, as Gray explained in the letter to permit holders and those on the wait list, the FOI Commission had been consulted and indicated the requested information was releasable.

“We have no technical recourse to prevent its disclosure,” he wrote.

Greenwich Connections group on Facebook immediately blew up with dozens of comments from outraged residents that their information had been shared with someone who hadn’t even had to state the purpose of his request, had used a “burner” hotmail address, and whose identity wasn’t clear in Google searches.

Commenters noted that FOIA doesn’t “go both ways,” and that Mr. Ruiz might not even be a Greenwich resident.

Further, there was concern Ruiz might use the data to look up residents’ tax information and home addresses and information about their other vehicles. There was specific concern about residents being targeted for car theft.

Several people commented they had reached out to Mr. Ruiz whose email was on the correspondence that Deputy Chief Gray shared.

Mr. Ruiz did not respond to an email from GFP. (This reporter is a permit  holder and received the correspondence.)

Increase in FOIA Requests

Complaints around FOI are not new. There has always been concern about the drain on scarce resources to respond to them.

Yet FOI is an integral part of democracy. It enables representatives of the news media and public-interest groups to keep government accountable and transparent. But, also, public information is everyone’s information.

After all, it was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who in 1913 wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”

Nevertheless, here in Greenwich, over the past few years the number of FOIA requests to the school district, police department and town hall have ballooned.

The Greenwich Patriots’ e-blasts frequently talk about their FOIA requests and there is an FOIA link on their website.

In Greenwich, some requests result in hundreds of pages of documents, and town employees are dedicating more time than ever to respond.

At the October 12 Board of Selectmen meeting First Selectman Fred Camillo suggested the town make public a running list of FOIA requests.

“Maybe just post each week who is making these requests so the public knows,” he said. “We want to be transparent.”

Last Friday, in response to a question from WGCH 1490 am host Tony Savino, Camillo said FOIA requests were usually done for political purposes.

He said his “Community Connections from Fred” Friday e-blast list had been FOI’d by his political opponents.

On Monday we asked Mr. Camillo where his Community Connections email list originated from.

He responded that the list was based on the Parks & Recreation list, but that it had been expanded to include people who opt in from the Town website and he had folded in a list from when he served as State Rep in the 151st district

Lastly, about the disclaimer at the bottom of his Friday emails, Camillo said, “the Town has never sold any information and only gives it out when compelled to by FOI.”

He directed further questions to the town attorney.

On the radio on Friday, Camillo said he believed people submitting numerous FOIA requests were abusing the law.

He noted the Police Dept had to add an employee to review FOI requests.

He suggested it might be less expensive to have one person handle all the FOIA requests for the town.

“One central spot makes a lot of sense,” he said. “We want to get this law changed because it’s easy to steal someone’s identity. You only need four pieces of information. We really want to get the law amended.”

Lastly he said he had asked Senator Ryan Fazio (R-36) to look at drafting a bill to model off other states that have imposed some FOIA restrictions, so that Connecticut might follow suit.

One GFP reader suggested residents create a burner email address to sign up for a list just to see what other lists they wind up being added to. Great idea.