Mark Sommaruga has been representing Connecticut school boards and town councils for 22 years, but the focus on public records law has never been more intense than it is right now. The political climate appears to be “one that favors disclosure,” he said, adding there has been increased outcry for transparency in the public sector.
The debate over what legal obligations government agencies have in releasing records was brought to the forefront recently, when the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ruled the Newtown Police Department was required to release 911 tapes from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the same time, a task force is weighing whether the state should make police photos taken at homicide scenes off limits to the public.
“We’ve seen after Sandy Hook, a real discussion over whether the laws have to be revisited, or recalibrated,” said Sommaruga, a Pullman & Comley attorney who recently wrote a 94-page book, “Understanding the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act and Access to Public Meetings and Records, Fourth Edition.”
The book was published by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, which asked Sommaruga if he would be interested in authoring the treatise. The project gave the lawyer a chance to update three much smaller versions that he wrote starting in 2005 while with the firm of Sullivan Schoen Campane & Connon.
“The purpose of the book is to provide guidance to [municpal] agencies that are seeking to navigate the maze of edicts and exceptions associated with the FOIA,” Sommaruga said. “The book itself has gotten progressively bigger, because there are more issues to include.”
The book is written as a series of “war stories,” said the author, and is organized into three sections: public meetings; access to public records; and the process of appearing to answer FOIA complaints.
Sommaruga said there have been long-standing misunderstandings of the law by both public bodies and citizens. For instance, Sommaruga writes that much of his day job representing school districts involves drafting school board meeting policies. “One thing I noticed when I first got involved in this type of work was if I wasn’t involved in drafting an agenda for a school board, I would see many clients who would not adequately notice what was going to be up for discussion,” he said.
If a school board was going to discuss, for example, a disciplinary matter against an employee, “you’d see them put ‘personnel matter,’ on the agenda,” said Sommaruga. “That is not specific enough under the state’s FOIA, but it’s still something I see all the time.”
Beyond the agenda listing, dealing with personnel matters often leads to other mistakes. “A lot of our clients have unionized work places and they have grievance procedures,” Sommaruga said. “At one step in that process, often before a school board or a board of selectmen, the boards will often seek to hold an executive session.”
But the widely accepted notion that employment decisions must be made behind closed doors is incorrect, he said. “An evidentiary hearing, absent an exception such as sensitive medical information, is supposed to be open to the public.”
Writing the book came at a busy time for Sommaruga. He was contacted about the project right after joining Pullman & Comley, part of a lateral hire of an entire team of municipal and school board lawyers from Sullivan Schoen Campane & Connon.
The task took several weeks and included researching some topics he had not previously explored. For instance, Sommaruga wrote a section on the legal requirement for public agencies to not overcharge for copies of records. Under state law, the fee for a paper copy can’t exceed what it costs the agency to produce that record.
Sommaruga noted his book wasn’t written as a money-maker, either. “This is being sold by the CABE organization on their website, and there is a reduced price for members. The main thing is that my fellow lawyers hopefully can be educated and entertained by what I wrote.”
“Understanding the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act and Access to Public Meetings and Records, Fourth Edition,” can be purchased at www.cabe.org. The price is $9.95 for Connecticut Associaton of Boards of Education members and $17.95 for non-members.•