SHELTON — Shelton’s Planning and Zoning Commission members received a lesson last week in their responsibilities under the Connecticut Freedom of Information law.

Tom Hennick, a Connecticut Freedom of Information commissioner, discussed how the FOI regulation affects local governments — including commissions consisting of volunteer citizens — during a special meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission Jan. 14.

“I’ve been part of the FOI Commission for 20 years, but before that I was a journalist,” said Hennick, “so my perspective is a bit different because I used to be one of the people asking you the questions.”

The drive toward government transparency began on the national level in 1966, when Congress approved the Freedom of Information Act. It was designed to make how federal agencies operate more transparent to citizens. Gov. Ella Grasso pushed for Connecticut’s FOI law in 1975.

“Grasso was in Congress during Watergate, and when she was elected governor, she said ‘I’m going to put forth some sort of open-government law in this state,’” said Hennick, adding that through Grasso’s efforts, the law passed unanimously in the state legislature.

What FOI means - and doesn’t mean

Hennick told P&Z members that there are some common misconceptions about what the commission does and how it operates.

“People see the term ‘freedom of information’ and they think ‘free information,’” said Hennick, adding that, instead, it is up to people themselves to attend meetings and do research. The law guarantees access to certain records and information, but it’s up to individuals to find it.

“One gentleman called up and said he wanted a copy of his naturalization papers — that’s a federal matter,” Hennick said.

A variety of FOI stipulations apply specifically to municipal governance. The law is especially clear about agendas — when they must be posted (a minimum of 24 hours prior to the meeting) and what they must contain. An agenda must also specify if a vote is to be expected: the words “discussion only” will indicate that a vote, if any, would take place at a later meeting.

“If something comes up during a meeting, you can’t discuss it” because it wasn’t on the agenda provided to the public before the meeting, Hennick said. “Instead, put it on the agenda for discussion at the next meeting.”

There are exceptions. At a regular meeting, the members of a board or commission can vote to add an item to an agenda: If the vote is favorable, the item goes forward for discussion. However, no such additions can be made at special meetings, such as those called to discuss items of particular importance or with time sensitivity.

Hennick tells governmental groups to avoid calling for “emergency meetings,” because those should be reserved for topics involving possible harm or danger.

Different definition

One quirk about Connecticut government is the use of the word “adjourn” which can signify the continuance of a meeting, or its postponement, as during inclement weather.

And while many municipalities wrestle with how to limit the length of public-comment sessions, the law is silent on the topic.

“Nothing in the law requires you to have public comments,” Hennick said. “It’s up to you to determine whether you will have them and how long they will be.”

Also, the FOI law allows for certain topics to be discussed confidentially by boards, in what’s known as executive session. The board or commission must vote to go into executive session, and the agenda must make mention of it as a topic for such a vote. Executive sessions are permitted for discussing personnel matters, claims or litigation, matters of security or public safety, property transactions and legal opinions from counsel.

“The purpose of our having workshops like these is to guide you so if FOI comes up, you’ll know what to do,” said Hennick. “And if you don’t, you can always call us and we’ll get you an answer.”

For more information, residents can contact the FOI Commission at 860-566-5682 or 866-374-3617 or via email at foi@ct.gov.