Wednesday, July 24, 2024


Freedom of Information Staffer Addresses Board of Ed

Members of Westports Board of Education peppered a staff member of the stateҒs Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission tonight with questions about conducting board business while complying with the FOI law.
Thomas A. Hennick, public education officer of the commission, addressed the board for more than an hour at its meeting in the Staples High School library and then answered questions from its members and the public.
Many of the questions from board members concerned the use of e-mail in conducting board business.  Mary Parmelee wanted to know whether it was okay to give and share opinions about agenda topics via e-mail in advance of a meeting.

FOI Commission staffer Thomas Hennick addresses the Board of Education tonight. photo

In general, use common sense and be practical,Ӕ Hennick advised. The idea here is not not to use e-mail. You just donӒt want to get into the deliberative area.
He said a simple message stating an opinion would probably be okay, but added that if the e-mails turned into a general discussion, that would be more like a meeting and that would not be okay.
Several board members said that they already have in place a system whereby all e-mails sent to and from board members are retained on a computer and the public may go to the office of Supt. of Schools Elliott Landon and request access.
Hennick said Westport seemed more advanced than some other communities in its use of and questioning about e-mail and the FOI law.
ԓSome of what you said tonight is groundbreaking, he told the meeting. ԓI havent heard it from many corners of the state.Ҕ
The FOI official also talked at length about what is properly discussed in executive sessions and when it is okay for the board to meet for a non-public meeting.
This was the second meeting of the board since the Nov. 4 election. Two new board members, Democrat Mark Mathias and Republican Lewis Brey, had successfully run for the board on platforms that included advocating better communication between the board and the public.
Westport’s Board of Education has been the subject of two FOI complaints in recent years—the latest in August when The Hour of Norwalk filed a complaint over delayed access to e-mail correspondence.
The newspaper withdrew the complaint three weeks later when the e-mails were supplied and school officials said they had established a system for the public to review e-mails subject to public inspection.
Hennick introduced his talk by saying he had an especially good feel for issues involving boards of education because not only was he an FOI staffer and a former journalist, but he also serves as a member of the Region 13 Board of Education.
Region 13 serves the Middlesex County towns of Durham and Middlefield in south central Connecticut.
Update (12/2/03): In its report on the meeting in Tuesday’s edition, The Hour played up Hennick’s positive comments about the board’s retention of e-mails policy, headlining its story “FOI spokesman applauds school board.” The newspaper made no mention of its August FOI complaint.
The Hour also reported: “Representative Town Meeting Moderator Gordon Joseloff,  District 8, said the RTM retains its e-mails in paper form in the Town Clerk’s Office, but it intends to place them on the Internet to give further access to the public.
“‘Inviting someone into an office to review e-mails is a half-step,’ he said. ‘You need to make a full step toward public access. You can make people think you are not open.’”
Editor’s Note: Joseloff is editor and publisher of WestportNow.

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