The Board of Education unanimously approved a new policy on Tuesday night which will make the log Freedom of Information Act requests available to the general public. Anyone can now request to see the log and the district administration will respond, but the log itself will not simply be posted on the district website. Previously, the FOIA log was actually subject to a FOIA request, but this policy simplifies that process, saving district administrators time and money.

The log will be available as of the policy going into effect, but information in the log prior to the policy enactment will still require a FOIA request.

The log will include the name and address of the requester, the affiliate organization if applicable, the date of the FOIA request, a description of the FOIA request, the number of pages reviewed to fill the request, and the date on which the request was closed.

Further, the FOIA request log will be reviewed by the Board of Education once a year. The policy originally had this review taking place as part of the budget process, but board members were hesitant to tie the review so directly to the budget. The log would be reviewed more frequently should a significant increase in FOIA requests occur. The board will see a log from July 1 through Sept. 30, and then again on June 30, unless there is an anticipated budget impact from an uptick in requests.

The log will be appropriately redacted to comply with all privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Requests made by parents or students currently in Darien schools will not be listed in the FOIA log, as those parents are students are protected by FERPA.

The discussion has been ongoing for the past three meetings, with board counsel Tom Mooney also taking part to facilitate discussion and offer legal opinion. A very large increase in FOIA requests in the past year sparked the discussion, as the amount of time and money spent on filling the large number of requests had clearly become problematic. A single individual’s 26 requests in the last year cost nearly $100,000 in legal fees and hundreds of man hours to fill.

A number of other town boards are having similar discussions about making FOIA requests log public. While the practice at the federal level is relatively common, at the local level it remains rare.

n Wednesday, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said the Board of Selectmen is also considering the publication of FOIA requests but “we haven’t finalized any decision.”

“I have no problem making FOI requests public, whether that’s publishing a log or publishing them immediately upon receipt,” she said.

While Stevenson said the FOIA situation the Board of Ed is responding to is “very unique,”  the town always gets a “number of FOI requests.”

“It’s very routine, we have so many different issues that certain people are interested in,” she said.

The final discussions is more about the how to share them vs. whether to share them.

“We want to do it in a way that isn’t an operational and administrative burden,” Stevenson said.

Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini has expressed support for his board following suit as well in publishing FOIA requests, but earlier said he needed to discuss it with his commission.

"The commission has had one discussion on the topic and we plan to schedule a decision over the next few weeks. My recommendation to the commission will be to publish any formal written requests for public information submitted to the Planning and Zoning Department," Sini said Wednesday morning.

"I  believe that by publishing the FOIA request log, our commission will eliminate the potential for stale data, selective dissemination and/or manipulation -- unfortunately, something the BOE's decision opens itself up to," he said.

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky said his board has not had a great deal of FOIA requests in several years. He said it is not currently a topic of discussion but he may put it on his agenda in the future.

“I understand the BOE’s stated desire to be more transparent, but I do worry that this policy could dissuade citizens from filing legitimate FOIA requests.  We should not be making it harder for people to exercise their right to know what their elected and appointed officials are doing.  I know the BOE has thought this through carefully, but we should be vigilant in protecting FOIA rights for everyone,” he said.

Zagrodzky added it was a “two-way street.”  

“Citizens are free to exercise their FOIA rights, but any perceived overreach in doing so weakens support for the law, and could ultimately destroy it.  If you have a grievance against government, there are other and better ways of addressing it than through abuse of the FOIA process,” he said.

The Board of Education has taken this step as a means of becoming more transparent, as community members have asked.

darestia@darientimes.com