In advance of Monday night’s (June 7) Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice informed the BOS in a memo of her ongoing concerns about Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violations among some of the scores of Wilton’s board and commission members, who serve as volunteers.
While some members who’ve run afoul of the FOIA laws have done so unknowingly, Vanderslice explained that a few others were failing to take measures to better understand the state regulations or were resistant even to comply with the statutes.
She outlined several steps she wanted to implement to ensure better compliance from anyone appointed to serve the town.
She told the BOS, “As you know, I took office following a period when the Town had experienced a significant increase in FOIA violation claims and the Town spent significant resources addressing those claims. I made FOIA compliance a priority. A number of initiatives were implemented in an attempt to achieve 100% compliance with the Freedom of Information Act by town board and commission members.”
Those measures included providing all members with a town email address (to be used for all board/commission-related communications) and general FOIA training by the town’s legal counsel. In addition, a written Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission, which includes a FOIA overview, and training videos were provided on the town’s website for easy reference.
Vanderslice told the BOS in the memo, “Despite these efforts, some appointed board/commission members struggle to understand and/or appreciate the FOIA requirements. It isn’t clear whether they have forgotten the provided information or haven’t reviewed the provided information.”
During the meeting, her exasperation was evident. “It’s not that difficult. Learn the basics and that will get you through things 90% of the time,” she said.
The Basics of the FOIA Laws — Everything Should be in Public
Vanderslice says that even if the way the Freedom of Information rules are written is confusing, the basic purpose of the law is straightforward: “the purpose being that everything that you do should be in public, the public should be able to see it. And in the case of documents, read it. And if you understand that, then you understand why you have to do your correspondence on a town email; why, even if you’re a working group, you have to have your meetings in public.”
It’s also a matter of law.
“This is a state law, and it’s been in place for a long time. It dates back to the Watergate era. It’s not new,” Vanderslice told GMW.
Furthermore, anyone serving on a town board or commission, as an official of the town, has to abide by that law.
“It is a condition of serving that, you have to agree to follow the law, the FOIA statute. That’s just a fact.”
Despite what seems like overstating the obvious, Vanderslice said she gets questions — and pushback.
“The questions are whether or not they can have subcommittees, which they can. And whether or not they can speak to each other outside of meetings. Newer members are coming on and pushing back. They question, ‘Why do we have these FOIA regulations? They’re too hard. They make our job difficult,’” she related.
Vanderslice informed the BOS that Sarah Gioffre would be meeting with commissions that “are having a lot of problems, asking a lot of questions about it or challenging it” to review FOIA and other administrative matters.
In addition, she proposed adding two new requirements for appointed board and commission members, including reading the Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission as a condition of eligibility, and receiving a “FOIA refresher” every two years.
Vanderslice also had a recommendation with regard to commissioners’ conduct during remote/hybrid meetings. “It’s important to remind everyone about the professionalism on that. You’re probably aware of some issues they’re having at the state level with alcohol consumption during meetings. You shouldn’t be drinking during a remote meeting.”
Specifically, she proposed the guide to serving to be updated with the following language: “Remote/Hybrid meetings should be conducted in the same respectful manner as if conducted fully in-person. This includes attention to attire and backgrounds when remote and no drinking of alcoholic beverages during the meeting.”
The BOS agreed to adopt Vanderslice’s recommendations.