Adventures In ‘Open’ Government

I’ve been denied access to government documents on and off for 20 years.

Sometimes it’s justified. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it depends on who you ask. Sometimes I think it’s unjustified and I’m later proven wrong. Sometimes the Danbury mayor walks in, yells at someone, and you suddenly get what was being wrongfully denied.

It’s part of being a local reporter.

Since it is Sunshine Week — a week to celebrate the public’s right to know — I’m relaying an experience I had with Derby’s building official Thursday morning.

Spoiler alert: it’s probably not a case study in government transparency.

Background

A building across from City Hall was declared unsafe Wednesday evening. Click here for the story I published on the issue.

I visited the building at 195 Main St. Thursday morning.

There was a bright sticker on the building saying it was unsafe.

I took pictures of the building, which looked unsafe to me, based on the way the chimney looked like it was ready to take a nap on Main Street.

I went inside Derby City Hall to talk to Building Official Carlo Sarmiento because his title was referenced on the bright orange sticker on the building.

Sarmiento said the city put up barricades to keep people away from the building. He said firefighters were stationed near the building to watch it for “safety issues, for safety concerns.”

OK, I thought to myself. There’s a sticker saying it’s unsafe. Sarmiento just said there are safety concerns. My next request was: “describe the safety concerns.”

“It looks like one of the chimneys is leaning over,” I said, hoping to get Sarmiento to provide more descriptions because I’m a writer, not a building inspector.

But Sarmiento would not describe the alleged safety issues, because he said he needed two engineering reports. He said he would be more than happy to share the reports once the reports are ready.

Moving on, I asked him how the city was made aware of the problem.

Sarmiento said firefighters on Main Street saw the chimney was “increasingly leaning.” Sarmiento said the description from the firefighters was accurate.

I asked if anyone was living in the structure. Sarmiento said it was a vacant building.

I was hoping to get some background on the building. I only know it as a giant dump that reinforces the “Dirty Derby” stereotype. I live in Derby, and I hate that phrase.

I asked if the property was on the blight list. Sarmiento asked a blight inspector. I didn’t hear an answer.

I pointed out it was supposed to be some type of baseball batting facility at some point. Sarmiento said permits were pulled a few years back but the work was never finished.

A Letter, You Say?

“Has it been, like, a thorn in the city’s side or anything?” I asked.

Sarmiento said “now that it has become a safety issue the last couple of weeks.”

Good, I thought, he’s doubled back to saying there are safety issues, now he’ll describe them.

He then asked an assistant for a letter he sent to the owner. He said he thought he sent the letter about two weeks ago.

Oh, I thought, a letter would be perfect! It would give a little more history, and hopefully fill the missing information regarding the safety issues.

The letter would (presumably) allow me to end the interview so we could both move on with our days. I was anxious to get back on my other Sunshine Week story. Also, my dog needed to be walked.

The letter was found and printed. It was two pages. It existed. I looked at it from afar.

But Sarmiento said his signature was not on the letter. Was this the actual letter? Had this letter been sent? No one knew.

Sarmiento said I would have to “hold off on the letter” because he didn’t want to give me a letter he didn’t send.

I was frustrated.

I pointed out the document is still a public record, though I wasn’t sure I was correct.

My internal reasoning was this: he wrote it, it’s in City Hall, it’s about public safety, how does the lack of a stamp from the U.S. Post Office make it a secret document?

I thought Sarmiento was going to say “It’s a draft document, it is not finalized,” which is sort of an exemption to the state’s FOI Act public document rules.

“Preliminary drafts or notes (are allowed to be kept from the public’s view) provided the public agency has determined that the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

The city would have a hard time explaining why holding this letter outweighed the public’s interest, but slapping “draft” on a piece of paper is a way governments withhold documents they do not want to give out, in my experience.

But he didn’t say that.

Instead, he said: “It’s public record, but if we want to go that way, fill out a FOIA report. You’ll have it in month.”

The law doesn’t grant the public instant access to documents. It requires the public agency to respond to a request within four days. People who request documents are supposed to be treated fairly.

I was hoping they could figure out whether the letter had been sent and just give me a copy so I could have more credible information for a short story about a public hazard seen by about a gazillion passing motorists.

That wasn’t happening.

By this point we were both annoyed at each other.

He began referring my questions to the city’s corporation counsel.

In the past I’ve tended to admit defeat at this point and just walk away with my tail between my legs.

Instead, I pointed out it was Sunshine Week and that this could be a test of Derby government’s openness. I asked him to define transparency, which was probably a cheap shot on my end.

“I’m dealing with the (building) owner right now. This is a problem that arrived on my desk right now, so I can’t give you incomplete information,” he said. “I will not do that. I will not give you incomplete information because that can become whatever people want to think that it is. I’m doing this for the sake of protecting the process,” Sarmiento said.

But he also said the letter, which had been written about two weeks ago, had something to do with stucco falling off the building (a public concern, I think, which outweighs the need to keep the letter secret).

“I’m investigating this right now,” he said. “This letter was drafted to be sent out, because if it was drafted and not sent out I don’t want you to put that in the paper and attack the property owner thinking that we’re going after him in a very ugly way. I’m not doing that.”

I’m not a lawyer, but that doesn’t sound like a good reason to deny or delay access to a public record.

It sounds like a misunderstanding of the public’s right to know, and the simple role a community reporter plays as a representative of the public.

Click here to read stories from The Valley Indy’s “your right to know” section.

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