FOI requests down in recent months
Freedom of Information Act requests have been few and far between in recent months. In late September, the Board of Education voted to make the FOIA request log a public document. This means that anyone can request and receive a log of who made a FOIA request of the board, when, and what was requested, with all legally private information appropriately redacted. The decision came on the heels of the news that a single person had cost the town nearly $100,000 in legal fees alone with more than two dozen FOIA requests. At this year’s budget approval, the board cut the legal services line of the budget by $75,000, anticipating that the number of FOIA requests would decrease this year.
The log was officially voted to be made public at a Board of Education meeting on Sept. 26, 2017. Since then, only three requests have been made. None of the requests were made by the individual who made several requests over the course of the past year, nor were they related to the same issues. The log shows the last FOIA request made of the district happening on Oct. 10, and that it has been fulfilled as of Jan. 25.
There are, however, other FOIA matters the district still has open. Beyond just the requests, the administration also makes available the list of complaints made to the FOI Commission. If an individual is unsatisfied with the results of a request, a complaint may be made and the appeal is heard by the FOI Commission in Hartford. Those requests require administrators along with legal counsel to travel so the appeal can be heard, and then the commission makes a decision. The individual who made the numerous requests over the past two years is responsible for every complaint in the log since October 2016. The requests all deal with or stem from an incident involved DHS football coach Rob Trifone, who struck a player on the helmet and was subsequently suspended.
A total of nine complaints are listed. Two have been carried to completion, with the commission ruling in favor of the school district. One complaint has been withdrawn. The other six are still awaiting a final decision, or waiting to be heard, meaning that the district continues to spend money on legal counsel to handle these complaints before the commission.
The line item for the budget was originally $327,361. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner said this number was significantly higher than in neighboring districts. The number was so high because of the extremely high number of requests made by one individual. Vice Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross made the motion to cut $75,000, saying, “One person has cost us $100,000.”
Chairman Tara Ochman agreed with the cut, at one point considering cutting more, saying, “I would always rather make the case to support children and not pay lawyers. Sometimes we pay lawyers to support children, but that’s not the case here. I don’t want an individual driving our budget, I want education of our children driving our budget.”
Asked for input on the decision to cut the item, Brenner said, “My thought is that I hope we don’t need it.”
The Darien Times asked to see the log following the decision to cut the legal services budget in an attempt to discover if the district was on track to reduce that number as it expects. It is impossible, however, to tell exactly what happens from here. The next meaningful result to be expected is when the commission makes a decision on Feb. 28 about one of the complaints lodged. The decision made on Feb. 28 is regarding a complaint for a request made on Dec. 5, 2016, which would indicate that it could be some time until all complaints are ruled on.
Should the Board of Education need additional funds for legal fees in the event the large volume of FOIA requests and complaints continues, it would need to seek money from the town.