NEFAC logo 11-11The NEFAC Report
New England's monthly right-to-know dispatch

January 2012

Prepared by the New England First Amendment Coalition in partnership with Northeastern University    
   The monthly NEFAC Report monitors print and online coverage of public access issues in the six-state region.  Visit our Website  for the NEFAC blog, media updates from around New England, guides to the states' right-to-know laws, legal contacts and more.
Case shows church needs to keep tabs on visiting priests
   About five years ago, a visiting priest from Haiti was looking for a parish in the Diocese of Bridgeport to call home for a time.
   His travels brought him to St. Mary's Parish on Greenwich Avenue, whose pastor offered the priest, Jean Marie DeGraff, room and board while DeGraff was working in the diocese and advocating for his impoverished home country of Haiti. In return, DeGraff performed duties around the parish as needed,  including assisting with Mass and speaking with parishioners, a role he filled between 2007 and 2008.
   DeGraff, who became a priest in the Society of St. Jacques in Haiti in 2004, traveled throughout the diocese, which encompasses Fairfield County, with the permission of Bishop William Lori, speaking at parishes about his home country.  Read more 

- David Hennessey, Greenwich (Conn.) Time  


MA communities deciding on remote participation option  
   With adoption of a new policy, members of Barnstable County boards and committee will be able to participate in meetings when they can't physically attend, at least under certain circumstances.
   The policy, unanimously adopted by the county commissioners Jan. 11, closely mirrors the requirements set forth by the Attorney General's Office. The AG's office was tasked with developing implementing regulations for the 2010 revisions to the Open Meeting Law, including determining whether remote participation should be allowed.
   Under certain circumstances, members of boards and commissions can remotely join and participate in meetings as full voting members. Among the more important requirements is that board members phoning it in can't complete a quorum. There must be a quorum of members physically present before remote participation is allowed.  Read more                                                     

- The Barnstable (Mass.) Patriot  


Others on this topic: 


ME governor says keeping his papers from public only fair
   The LePage administration says this is not about hiding anything. This is about fairness. For example: say the governor and state lawmakers are working on similar proposals for legislation, but have different ideas about what it should look like.
   Right now, no one can access the legislators' notes and documents about what they're planning because they are exempt from the Freedom of Access Act. But anyone can take a peek at the governor's.
   "It poses an unfair advantage during the drafting process of legislation," says Adrienne Bennett, the spokesperson for Gov. LePage. She says the exemptions the governor is proposing would only block access to working papers temporarily.  Listen to the report

  - Patty Wight, Maine Public Broadcasting Network   


FOI panel opens hearing on legality of CT town meeting  
   The Freedom of Information Commission started hearing evidence Tuesday to determine if three Seymour police commissioners held an illegal meeting to talk about embattled Seymour police Sgt. Ron Goodmaster.
   Six people testified at the FOI hearing Tuesday - detailing rumors, overheard conversations and information surrounding the alleged meeting of May 25, 2011.
   After more than two hours of testimony in Hartford, an attorney for the Freedom of Information Commission decided she needed to hear more - and said she might subpoena two Seymour police officers to get to the bottom of what happened.  Read more

  - Jodie Mozdzer, Valley Independent Sentinel,  Ansonia, Conn.  


On public information, some MA towns still don't get it    
   Several stories from the past week remind us that while we entrust our local officials with the responsibility of running our communities, there also needs to be a way of regularly verifying that such trust is well placed. And that can't happen without access to public information.
   Such access is difficult when officials hide public records from their constituents - a practice that unfortunately continues to be a problem in some local communities. Some are very good at making information public.
   Others - such as Abington, Stoughton, West Bridgewater and Carver - sometimes have more difficulty with the concept.
   The state attorney general has ruled twice in the last few months that the Stoughton School Committee has violated the Open Meeting Law because of its executive session actions.
   The law on what can be done in these closed sessions and how information must be reported to the public is clear; yet some school committee members just don't seem to care.  Read more

  - The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.  


 Letter reveals reason for firing of town engineer 
   SOUTHINGTON, Conn. - Former Public Works Director Anthony Tranquillo couldn't meet job expectations and resisted change, said Town Manager Garry Brumback in a letter to town councilors as he ended Tranquillo's employment after the 40-year town engineer refused to retire.
   Tranquillo's last day with the town was Friday. Brumback informed councilors last Wednesday in an e-mail that Tranquillo's employment had ended. The e-mail, acquired Monday through a Freedom of Information Act request, included Brumback's letter to Tranquillo.
   "This action is necessary due to your inability to adapt to the changes in management style and organizational requirements necessary to meet the goals and objectives of the current management team," Brumback said in the letter to Tranquillo.  Read more

-  Jesse Buchanan, The Record Journal, Meriden, Conn.


Editorial: Candidates for vacant seat can't expect privacy
   There should be no confusion about whether a candidate for the Windham Town Council has a right to keep his name private. The principles of open government demand that he or she should not.
   The council is an elected body that sets public policy for the town of 16,900 people. It is required by law to do all of its business in public. And all of its records and communications are also public, with a few very specific exceptions. All those running for office should have no expectation of privacy, especially with regard to their ambition to serve.
   That message wasn't clear Wednesday, however, when town officials would not release the names or application forms of three town residents who have asked to be considered for an appointment to fill a vacant seat on the Town Council.   Read more

- The Portland Press Herald  


VT emails ordered released by courts were deleted 
   The case of the deleted email state government accounts underscores the idea that open records begins with proper record keeping, and the importance of making sure those who handle the records understand it.
   The Agency of Natural Resources now finds itself combing through electronic archives trying to retrieve emails from the Douglas administration that were the subject of a lawsuit by the state workers union.
   The messages were lost when email accounts for the former top ANR officials were deleted after Gov. Peter Shumlin took office last year, apparently as part of routine housekeeping that takes place when a new administration moves in.
   By deleting the accounts, the new Shumlin administration failed to safeguard emails that the state had been ordered to release by the courts. The administration also failed to follow policy about preserving emails until the state creates a more permanent policy about how to preserve electronic communications.  Read more

- The Burlington Free Press  


On verge of collapse, Big East and UConn were mum  
   HARTFORD, Conn. - As the Big East was on the verge of collapse late last summer, leaders of the athletic conference and the University of Connecticut demanded secrecy and unity.
   Paul Pendergast, UConn's interim athletic director, and university President Susan Herbst, were torn between staying in the Big East or seeking their own deal elsewhere.
   But the university was also positioning itself as a major athletics attraction in the New York-Boston corridor and essentially solidifying itself as one of the original Big East members.
   Herbst was keeping some information on negotiations among university presidents to herself and not sharing it with the athletic department, according to emails released Wednesday to Hearst Connecticut Media Group.  Read more

- Ken Dixon, Greenwich (Conn.) Time 


CT Watchdogs oppose increased power for new overseer
   The divisions of state government's new and loosely unified watchdog agency found a common voice this week as they opposed recommendations that would increase executive branch oversight of their missions.
   Leaders of the right-to-know, clean elections and ethics agencies, along with the child advocate, urged lawmakers in a new report not to enhance the powers of the new executive administrator of the Office of Governmental Accountability. That post was created last spring to oversee business support services for nine watchdog groups but was denied control over the entities' budgetary and personnel decisions.
   The recommendations of OGA Executive Administrator David L. Guay "would dismantle the carefully crafted balance" under the new system "between the appropriate sharing of so-called back-office functions to achieve cost-savings and efficiency and the necessary independent decision-making authority" of the watchdog divisions, wrote the Office of State Ethics.  Read more

- Keith M. Phaneuf, The Connecticut Mirror 


More on watchdog consolidation:

Critics of combined agency were right    - Record-Journal, Meriden 

Legislature should correct a flawed idea  - The Day, New London    

Who's in charge here?   - CT News Junkie   



Some ME towns' policies violate right-to-know rules  
    PORTLAND, Maine - The public's right to know is described in Maine by the Freedom of Acccess Act, which clearly outlines the rules and obligations for operating an open, transparent government.
   For example, a citizen who requests a document from a public agency may not be charged more than $10 per hour for time spent fulfilling that request. And that fee can only be charged after the first hour.
   In spite of this, the Scarborough School Board has a policy allowing officials to charge up to $30 per hour. Late last year, the board was prepared to increase the fee to $50 per hour, but tabled the proposal after questions were raised by a reporter from The Forecaster.
   The incident prompted an investigation into public right-to-know policies in cities and towns throughout greater Portland. That investigation revealed that Scarborough isn't the only municipality or school district to run afoul of the FOAA.  Read more  

- M. Moretto and M. Guerin, The Forecaster, Falmouth, Maine 


Explanation sought for ME's loss of Flagstaff Lake control
   AUGUSTA, Maine - An environmental group is accusing the state Department of Environmental Protection of deliberately relinquishing oversight of Flagstaff Lake in Eustis.
   Last month the DEP acknowledged that it had inadvertently ceded oversight of water quality and water levels at the 20,000-acre lake to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission following a reapplication by the Flagstaff Lake HydroPower Storage Project. The department attributed the lapse to an ongoing restructuring that included the August retirement of Dana Murch, the DEP manager of dams and hydropower.
   However, Sean Mahoney, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said Tuesday that the DEP's explanation was "at best completely uninformed and at worst deliberately false."
   Shortly after the news broke that the state had effectively surrendered oversight of Flagstaff to FERC for the next 25 years, Mahoney's organization filed a freedom of information request for memos and emails related to the Flagstaff issue.  Read more

-  Steve Mistler, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine  


Judge wants to see complaints against school official    
   OSSIPEE, N.H. - Carroll County Superior Court judge Steven Houran believes a newspaper's Right To Know request has enough merit that he has asked the Conway School District to turn over 23 pages of complaints against school board member Randy Davison for the judge's review before he makes a final ruling.
   Houran released a three-page order Dec. 29, just a week after the school district and The Conway Daily Sun appeared before him in court in Ossipee.
   "We did get a copy of the order and intend to comply with whatever the judge wants and rules," Carl Nelson, school superintendent, said Tuesday. "We'll comply with whatever the law states."
   The Sun's publisher, Mark Guerringue, was not surprised by the judge's request.
   "Any documents relating to the behavior of an elected school official on school property are about as public as documents can get," Guerringue said. "We'll be floored if the judge doesn't release them."
 Read more 

-  Lloyd Jones, The Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun  


Much done on Beacon Hill, but how much in public? 
   BOSTON - Not long after state lawmakers ended their formal work for 2011 with a near-midnight November session, they began congratulating themselves for an exemplary season of legislating. ...
   "I would say this was one of the most impressive sessions over the past 30 years in terms of legislation passed," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.
   But how much really got done this year, and, more importantly, how much of the legislative process that moved these bills to law took place in public?  Read more  

-  Boston University Statehouse Program  


Best for VT: Clear out the exemptions and start fresh   
   The best thing lawmakers could do to clean up Vermont's open records law is the clear the statute books of all exemptions and start fresh. Our state must return to the premise that all government documents are open to the public.
   Exemptions to the open records laws must be few and written in a way that any Vermonter can understand. That no one is sure how many exemptions are on the books or where they might lie is unacceptable.
   With so many exemptions on the books, any official or agency can find a reason to deny access, then challenge a member of the public to prove them wrong.   Read more

-  The Burlington Free Press  


Use of Internet aids and clouds Beacon Hill transparency
   BOSTON - Although the Web has made some Statehouse information and online videos of hearings a click away for interested citizens, the use of the Internet has become a double-edged sword, limiting other aspects of transparency.
   Staff members on 15 of 22 major committees surveyed by the Boston University Statehouse Program said members sometimes vote via email. Rules about public access to these emails results are vague. Ten of the committee staff polled said the votes were not available to the public.
   Lawmakers are increasingly absent from their committee's public hearings. Many sessions are conducted with a fraction of the committee members present. Even sponsors of legislation are often no shows.
   The extent of the problem is hard to measure. Only six of 22 committees surveyed said they took attendance. Few make available the minutes of their sessions.  Read more

- Katie Lannan and Adam Tamburin, Boston University Statehouse Program  


Prince settlement disclosed because public money involved
   Civil-liberty lawyers have forced the town of South Hadley to reveal it coughed up $225,000 to squash a discrimination suit brought by the parents of Phoebe Prince, the Irish girl who hanged herself after months of bullying.
   "The public has a right to this information," ACLU lawyer Bill Newman said of the group's bid to force the town to release the information. He later added: "It's consistent with other Superior Court decisions on settlements. I think it's a well-reasoned decision ... that settlements are not going to be prevented from disclosure because of confidentiality agreements."
   The town argued the settlement was confidential and attorney-client privileged information. The sum was paid by the town's insurance companies, but because the premium and a $2,500 deductible was covered by taxpayers, a Superior Court judge ruled the town could not keep that information secret
   "When public money is spent, the public has a right to know how it was spent," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Read more  

- O'Ryan Johnson, Boston Herald  



Editorial: ME court should back electronic records access   
  If one terabyte hard drives had existed in George Washington's day, all public records would be available for download. Instead, our forefathers put the deeds and real estate transaction histories in courthouses, which were the most easily accessible public places available at the time.
   Keeping true to that principle is what should guide the Maine Supreme Judicial Court when it decides a case brought by six counties that want to keep the flow of electronic records to a trickle.
   The case involves a business, MacImage, which intended to make public records even more public and accessible by putting them online. That would take some work on the company's behalf, but it would expect to make a profit by charging users a fee, which many would gladly pay to avoid a trip down to the courthouse.
   The records are public, but the counties are allowed to charge a reasonable fee to cover the costs they incur by making them available, but that is not what they are doing.  Read more

- The Portland Press Herald  


Federal court in ME blocks further access to attack site info

    PORTLAND, Maine - A federal judge on Thursday rejected MaineToday Media's bid to intervene and expand public access to information in a lawsuit over a political attack website from Maine's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
   Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk said the company's involvement is unnecessary because she has already ruled that some confidential documents regarding the Cutler Files website will be made public within a couple of weeks.
   Kravchuk said MaineToday Media, parent company of The Portland Press Herald, can get involved in the case later if it believes the public should have access to any documents used by the court as a basis for a decision.
   The judge has put MaineToday Media's request for intervenor status "on hold," said Sigmund Schutz, an attorney for the company. "She's taking a wait-and-see approach to see what other people file and whether anybody is asking for additional secrecy in the case," he said.  Read more


- Tom Bell, The Portland Press Herald 


Upcoming: NEFAC honors Globe editor Baron at Feb. 10 luncheon
   Join us at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel on Feb. 10 when NEFAC presents Martin Baron with its second annual Stephen Hamblett award in recognition of his work upholding the public's right to know during his ten-year tenure at The Boston Globe.
   Tickets for a single seat or a table are available online. The luncheon is being held in conjunction with the New England Newspaper and Press Association's fall conference and trade show.
Comments welcome.
Send to The NEFAC Report editor Larry Laughlin, [email protected].

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