Opinion: Let the sunshine in
"Popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both." -- James Madison, Aug. 4, 1822.
Do you know what Sunshine Week is? In March, the month of President Madison's birthday, journalists, civic groups and public officials across the nation join together to carry on Madison's advocacy for government accountability through transparency. The goal of Sunshine Week is to make the public aware of your rights to open meetings and record accessibility, rights ensured by the Federal and Connecticut Freedom of Information Acts.
Meetings, hearings, etc., must be open to the public with limited exceptions such as caucuses, chance or social gatherings not for official business, and administrative or staff meetings. There are two types of open meetings: those in which public comment is allowed; and those, referred to as open-executive meetings, in which the public does not speak. No registration, sign-in or identification can be required of attendees, other than a speakers' sign-up list when applicable. The public can record, photograph or videotape meetings, subject to prior reasonable rules for non-interference with the conduct of the meeting.
Public agencies file a schedule of regular meetings each year with the town clerk. They are posted on a calendar in the town clerk's office and are listed on the official town Web site (www.fairfieldct.org/townclerk.htm). By making a written request to a board, you can receive notices of its meetings at least one week prior to the meeting date (where practical). A reasonable fee for this service may be charged.
Special meetings can be called up to 24 hours (excluding weekends, holidays, etc.) in advance. The agency files notice of the time, place and business of the special meeting with the town clerk. Emergency meetings can be held without these requirements.
Each board must file an agenda with the Town Clerk for each regular meeting at least 24 hours in advance; it may appear on the town website. New agenda items can be added at the time of the meeting only on a two-thirds vote of board members. Agendas for open meetings may include time for the public to speak.
Drafts of meeting minutes must be available to the public on the town Web site and at the town clerk's office within seven days of the meeting. Minutes for emergency meetings must include the reason for the emergency and must be filed with the town clerk within 72 hours (excluding weekends and holidays). Votes of each member on any issue must be included in meeting minutes and must also be made available to the public within 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. They should be available at the office of the board in question, if it has one, or at the town clerk's office.
Segments of open or open-executive meetings can be closed to the public. A two-thirds vote of board members present is required. Minutes of an open meeting in which a closed-executive session occurs must indicate all persons who were in attendance at the closed session, except for job applicants. Closed sessions can be held only for a limited number of reasons, including personnel issues and pending claims and litigation.
With certain limited exceptions you are entitled to prompt access to governmental records of public agencies. You may inspect public records during regular office hours of the agency. Agendas and minutes of public meetings can be viewed on the town Web site and at the Office of the Town Clerk. Copies, print-outs or transcripts should be requested in writing. A fee is charged for copies.
If you feel you have been denied any right, you can consult with the assistant town attorney or you can seek redress from the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford, which provides advice and conducts hearings and appeals (toll free, (866) 374-3617, firstname.lastname@example.org).
While the FOI acts do not address meeting protocol, the spirit of Sunshine Week suggests that boards and the public speak with clarity, civility, brevity and relevancy. And it is the responsibility of all -- boards and public -- to speak loud enough to be heard by all present with or without microphones. FOI law empowers citizens to play an active role in their government and gives them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. The town of Fairfield -- with its large RTM and its many agencies -- provides its citizens with an extraordinary number of opportunities to participate in open government whether as an elected or appointed official, a volunteer or an observer.
James Madison: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."