Court ruling could tangle release of public records in state

The release of public records in Connecticut, including property grand lists and voter registration information, could come to a virtual standstill if municipal officials comply with a recent state Supreme Court ruling.

Local and state officials throughout the state are trying to understand all the implications of the decision, which stems from a Freedom of Information request filed three years ago by Peter Sachs, a Branford lawyer and private investigator.

The court’s decision, handed down June 28, requires municipalities to redact the addresses of police officers, corrections officers, firefighters and other members of the “protected classes” from motor vehicle grand lists before providing the information to the public.

The concern among many officials in the state, however, is that the same logic the court used for motor vehicle lists could be used for everything from dog license lists to trade name registrations and even voter registration information.

“We have to follow what the court tells us,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission. “Even if it wasn’t a motor vehicle list, we would have to apply the same logic to other records.” Just about any public list that includes addresses would have to be combed through to remove the address of those members of the protected classes, which were created under a state law to protect certain workers, including judicial system employees and those working with the state Department of Children and Families.

The problem, according to local officials, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for town clerks, registrars and tax assessors to know the occupation of every resident in their community.

“The practical effect of this decision is chaos for municipalities,” said Dan Casagrande, a Danbury-based lawyer who serves as president of the Connecticut Association of Municipal Attorneys. “There is no physical way municipalities can obtain information about the individuals who belong to these protected classes so they can redact them from the lists.” While the goal of the state law, Casagrande said, is laudable, in today’s world, anyone with a computer can perform a simple Internet search to find someone’s address.

“I can probably redact the names of local firefighters and police officers, but what about the guy who lives in Danbury but works as a firefighter in Stamford?” said Danbury Town Clerk Lori Kaback. “How am I supposed to know who in the community works as a corrections officer or for the judicial system? And what do we do if they retire from their job? There are a lot of unanswered questions.” Les Pinter, Danbury’s assistant corporation counsel, has advised Kaback and other local officials to temporarily withhold public information until more clarity can be developed on the issue.

Sachs said Thursday that he sent new Freedom of Information requests to 10 municipalities in the state, including Danbury, Stamford, Bridgeport and Greenwich, seeking a “laundry list” of information meant to test the court’s decision.

“My point is to show that this is a state statute that, as it stands right now, can’t be complied with,” Sachs said.

More than 40 people, from groups as varied at the Connecticut Bankers Association and the Connecticut Association of Town Clerks, met Wednesday to discuss the issue.

“People came away from the meeting with a sense of just how big this problem is,” said Joyce Mascena, president of the town clerks association, which called the meeting.

“If we have to remove the addresses from land records, then how would title searchers be able to do their jobs?

“It’s a difficult subject and a lot is being talked about,” she said. “We are hoping to come up with some common-sense solutions that are administratively and economically feasible.” That, according to several officials who attended the meeting, could mean an act by the General Assembly, either repealing the protected-classes law or tweaking the statute in some way to make it more manageable.

James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, a nonprofit organization founded in 1955, said the law should be repealed.

“The original law was well-meaning, (intended) to protect certain people who might be in danger, but it was a misguided law,” Smith said. “It really goes to the very nature of a free and open society. We should not be creating protected classes.”

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