West Haven defends delay in processing requests for documents

WEST HAVEN — The state’s Freedom of Information Commission heard a complaint Tuesday about the city’s responsiveness to requests for public records, or lack thereof, as well as the city’s response to the delay in providing the information. requested.

City resident Diana McManus filed a complaint with FOIC after she said the city worked to block a June 2021 request relating to payroll and contractor records. City officials said the request was too robust to process quickly and required access to tons of unscanned documents.

After having heard both parties, the Hearing Officer will prepare a report on which the Committee will decide at its next meeting.

Last summer, some residents demanded information about rumors of overtime payments to city department heads, paid for with federal pandemic relief funding. McManus filed a Freedom of Information request with the city on June 25, 2021, with six requests, including information on above-salary allowance payments for all elected and appointed, the reason for this payment and the source of the financing.

His request also sought to obtain invoices from outside contractors carrying out work for the public works department paid for the previous year.

Although some of McManus’ requests were answered in October, she said it was not until January – after filing a complaint with the FOIC – that she received a long alphabetical list of suppliers. When McManus received her response in October, she also received a letter asking her to contact an attorney at an outside law firm because of the scope of her request.

“The problem with my complaint is the complete and utter disregard for the timeline and never having the opportunity to see any of the material internally,” McManus told FOIC hearings officer Kathleen Ross.

John Sykes, a paralegal in the city’s legal office, said there’s a manpower shortage at City Hall that makes it difficult to process cases, especially those that aren’t scanned.

“Having to complete a paper document application is more expensive and labor-intensive,” he said. “As you may or may not know, the city has seen an increase in turnover. The CFO is no longer with us, the deputy CFO is no longer with us. There is a lot of turnover in key roles.

After McManus pointed out during cross-examination that the city’s former CFO and former deputy CFO were employed by the city at the time of his application, Ross asked if it should matter .

“Even if the CFO and deputy were gone, are they the ones you would need to work with directly to fulfill an FOI request?” she asked. Sykes said the city’s former accounts payable manager was on leave at the time and was the most crucial person to help meet the demand.

When questioned, Sykes said he could not recall how many documents McManus requested that were only available in hard copy.

“I get hundreds of requests,” he said.

From the hearing, the city asserted that it had complied with all of McManus’ demands; McManus said she scoured a long list of contractors to narrow down the information she was looking for.

McManus said he received pay stubs in October showing compensation payments to several department heads and named city officials. After McManus made his request, a group of citizens – not including McManus – demanded an investigation from the office of State Attorney General William Tong into the validity of the expenses. At the time, Mayor Nancy Rossi faced a major challenge; McManus and the citizens’ group were supporters of Rossi’s challenger, John Lewis.

The request to the state led the Office of Policy and Management to order an audit of the city’s management of its $1.15 million CARES Act grant and its overall financial procedures. When the audit report was released in April, it concluded that approximately $900,000 had been spent improperly or lacked proper documentation.

The audit report found that nearly $60,000 in compensation payments made to five employees were either poorly documented or could not be substantiated as being related to the city’s response to the pandemic.

The next FOIC meeting is scheduled for April 27.