FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION
OF THE STATE OF CONNECTICUT

 

In the Matter of a Complaint by FINAL DECISION
Peter Sachs,  
  Complainant  
  against   Docket #FIC 2008-412

Assessor, Town of North Stonington;

and Town of North Stonington,

 
  Respondents January 14, 2009
       

 

The above-captioned matter was heard as a contested case on October 14, 2008, at which time the complainant and the respondents appeared, stipulated to certain facts and presented testimony, exhibits and argument on the complaint.  Five parties moved without objection to intervene and were granted intervenor status, having satisfied the requirements of 1-21j-31 of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies.  The intervenors are:  the Connecticut Department of Children and Families; the Connecticut Department of Correction; the Connecticut Department of Public Safety; the Connecticut Judicial Branch; and AFSCME, Council 4, Locals 387, 391 and 1565.  By order of the Hearing Officer, participation by the intervenors was limited to providing legal argument and briefs, although the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Correction requested and received permission to examine the witness for the respondents.  The intervenors and the respondents filed post-hearing briefs; the complainant filed a brief with his complaint to this Commission.   

After consideration of the entire record, the following facts are found and conclusions of law are reached:

1.      The respondents are public agencies within the meaning of 1-200(1), G.S. 

2.      It is found that on June 16, 2008, the complainant requested “an exact electronic copy of the file the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles provided to North Stonington, pursuant to CGS 14-163, for use in preparing its Motor Vehicle Grand List.”

3.      It is found that on June 17, 2008, the respondent assessor replied to the complainant’s request for copies of records, described in paragraph 2, above, with an e-mail, in which the assessor informed the complainant that:

a.       An exact electronic copy of the Motor Vehicle Grand List (MVR102.dat) was protected from disclosure pursuant to 1-217, G.S.; and

b.      The assessor would modify the electronic copy to redact names and residential addresses protected under 1-217, G.S., only if the complainant agreed to compensate the assessor for his time, payable in advance.

4.      By letter dated and filed on June 18, 2008, the complainant appealed to this Commission, alleging that the respondents violated the Freedom of Information (“FOI”) Act by failing to provide to the complainant an exact electronic copy of the town’s Motor Vehicle Grand List, and by failing to comply with the Act’s provisions for charging fees for copies of electronic records.

5.      Section 1-200(5), G.S., defines “public records or files” as:

 

Any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency, … whether such data or information be handwritten, typed, tape-recorded, printed, photostated, photographed or recorded by any other method.

6.   Section 1-210(a), G.S., provides in relevant part:  

[e]xcept as otherwise provided by any federal law or state statute, all records maintained or kept on file by any public agency, whether or not such records are required by any law or by any rule or regulation, shall be public records and every person shall have the right . . . to receive a copy of such records in accordance with the provisions of section 1-212. 

7.   Section 1-212(a), G.S., provides in relevant part that “[a]ny person applying in writing shall receive, promptly upon request, a plain or certified copy of any public record . . . .”

8.   Section 14-163, G.S., states:

The commissioner [of motor vehicles], on or before the first day of December, annually, shall furnish to the tax assessors in each town a list containing the names and addresses of the owners of motor vehicles and snowmobiles residing in their respective towns, as they appear by the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles, with a description of such vehicles.

 

9.   It is found that the respondents receive from the Department of Motor Vehicles a list containing the names and addresses of owners of motor vehicles.  It is found that the respondents use this list to compile the town’s Motor Vehicle Grand List for use in assessing property taxes.  It is found that MVR102.dat is the electronic file of the Motor Vehicle Grand List for North Stonington.  

 

10. It is found, therefore, that MVR102.dat is a public record of the respondents, within the meaning of 1-200(5) and 1-210(a), G.S.

 

11. Section 1-217, G.S., provides:

 

(a)     No public agency may disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act, the residential address of any of the following persons:

(1)   A federal court judge, federal court magistrate, judge of the Superior Court, Appellate Court or Supreme Court of the state, or family support magistrate;

(2)   A sworn member of a municipal police department, a sworn member of the Division of State Police within the Department of Public Safety or a sworn law enforcement officer within the Department of Environmental Protection;

(3)   An employee of the Department of Correction;

(4)   An attorney-at-law who represents or has represented the state in a criminal prosecution;

(5)   An attorney-at-law who is or has been employed by the Public Defender Services Division or a social worker who is employed by the Public Defender Services Division;

(6)   An inspector employed by the Division of Criminal Justice;

(7)  A firefighter;

(8)   An employee of the Department of Children and Families;

(9)   A member or employee of the Board of Pardons and Paroles;

(10)  An employee of the judicial branch;

(11)  An employee of the Department of Mental Health and    Addiction Services who provides direct care to patients; or

(12)  A member or employee of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

(b)   The business address of any person described in this section shall be subject to disclosure under section 1-210 of the 2008 supplement to the general statutes.  The provisions of this section shall not apply to Department of Motor Vehicles records described in section 14-10 of the 2008 supplement to the general statutes.

12.   The respondents and intervenors claim that 1-217, G.S., prohibits the respondents from disclosing the residential address of each protected employee included in the Motor Vehicle Grand List. According to the respondents and intervenors, 1-217, G.S., requires the respondents to redact the residential address of each protected employee included in the Grand List prior to providing a copy of the redacted list to the complainant and other members of the public.

13.   Section 12-55, G.S., which concerns grand lists of property, in relevant part provides:

(a) On or before the thirty-first day of January of each year, except as otherwise specifically provided by law, the assessors or board of assessors shall publish the grand list for their respective towns. Each such grand list shall contain the assessed values of all property in the town, reflecting the statutory exemption or exemptions to which each property or property owner is entitled, and including, where applicable, any assessment penalty added in accordance with section 12-41 or 12-57a for the assessment year commencing on the October first immediately preceding. The assessor or board of assessors shall lodge the grand list for public inspection, in the office of the assessor on or before said thirty-first day of January, or on or before the day otherwise specifically provided by law for the completion of such grand list. The town's assessor or board of assessors shall take and subscribe to the oath, pursuant to section 1-25, which shall be certified by the officer administering the same and endorsed upon or attached to such grand list. For the grand list of October 1, 2000, and each grand list thereafter, each assessor or member of a board of assessors who signs the grand list shall be certified in accordance with the provisions of section 12-40a.

      (b) Prior to taking and subscribing to the oath upon the grand list, the assessor or board of assessors shall equalize the assessments of property in the town, if necessary, and make any assessment omitted by mistake or required by law…

14.   It is found that the respondents compiled the Town of Stonington’s Motor Vehicle Grand List, described in paragraph 2, above, pursuant to its obligations as set forth in 12-55, G.S.

15.   It is concluded that 12-55, G.S., explicitly requires the assessor to make the grand list available for public inspection. 

16.   It is found that nothing in 12-55, G.S., permits redactions or omissions from the grand list that is lodged for public inspection.   

17.  Furthermore, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that 12-55, G.S., does not contemplate redactions to or omissions from a motor vehicle grand list.  Davis v. FOI Commission, 259 Conn. 45 (2002), adopting the decision of the court in Davis v. FOI Commission, 47 Conn. Sup. 309 (2002). 

18.  Davis, supra, which was decided seven years after the enactment of 1-217, G.S., followed longstanding Supreme Court precedent recognizing that property and tax lists must be complete and accurate and available for public inspection.  Rocky Hill Incorporated District v. Hartford Rayon Corp., 122 Conn. 392, 403 (1937); The Boston Turnpike Co. v. The Town of Pomfret, 20 Conn. 590 (1850).  See, e.g., 12-39, G.S., which states, “The tax books of any collector of any municipality or municipal district shall be, at all reasonable times, open to the inspection of any taxpayer…”

19.  “The purpose of 12-55(a) [G.S.,] ‘is for the general benefit of each inhabitant of the town, that he may by inspection ascertain whether, in his opinion, injustice has been done him, and if so, appeal to the board of relief for its correction[.] Davis, supra, at 318, citing Rocky Hill Incorporated District v. Hartford Rayon Corp., supra.

20.   “[T[he sanctity of our records, and the security which they are designed to furnish, would be destroyed, and … they would be subject to constant mutilation and change, if, when once made, any alteration of them is to be tolerated.”  The Boston Turnpike Co., supra (holding that it was appropriate for the town clerk to alter a town record book only to correct an error).

21.  It is concluded that the names and addresses of the people whose property comprises the Motor Vehicle Grand List are both necessary and integral to the completeness and accuracy of the list, as well as to the reasons why it is publicly available.  

22.   It is concluded that to construe 1-217, G.S., to permit the respondents to redact any names or residential addresses from the motor vehicle grand list “would require finding an implicit repeal of 12-55(a) [G.S.,] and Connecticut’s historical system of making grand lists, including personal property grand lists, available to the public for correction and disputation.”  Davis, supra, at 318. 

23.  The respondents and intervenors contend that, apart from 12-55, G.S., 1-217, G.S., expressly requires the respondents to redact the names and residential addresses of members of the protected employees.

24.   It is found that the Motor Vehicle Grand List does not identify the subject individuals as belonging to the employee categories set forth in 1-217, G.S.

25.   It is found that to comply with 1-217, G.S., the respondent assessor customarily excises, from the copy of the motor vehicle grand list that he makes available to the public, the names of about 40 people who, he believes, are members of the protected class of government employees. It is found that the assessor believes that as a long-time official in a small town, he and his staff know at any given time who is a member of the protected class under 1-217, G.S., and he acts on that basis of such ad hoc knowledge.

26.   It is found that any redaction of the Motor Vehicle Grand List violates the express requirement of 12-55, G.S., that the grand list be accurate and include “the assessed values of all property in the town.”  Redactions also contravene well-settled public policy and case law that tax rolls are to be accurate, complete, and accessible for public inspection.

27.   It is concluded that the respondents’ and intervenors’ interpretation of 1-217, G.S., directly conflicts with 12-55, G.S., and other statutes requiring the public inspection of all property included in a town’s grand list. 

28.   “We must presume that the legislature intended to enact one consistent body of law,” Sutton v. Lopes, 201 Conn. 115 (1986).  “If there are two possible interpretations of a statute, this court must adopt the more reasonable construction.” (Citation omitted.)  Polilo v. Planning Commission, 232 Conn. 44, 55, (1995).   “Furthermore, the legislature in enacting statutes is presumed to be aware of the existence of other legislation on the same or related issues . . . and [s]tatutes are to be interpreted with regard to other relevant statutes because the legislature is presumed to have created a consistent body of law.” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.)  In re Valerie D., 223 Conn. 492, 524 (1992)

29.   “It is a fundamental principle of statutory construction that courts must interpret statutes using common sense and assume that the legislature intended a reasonable and rational result.”  Longley v. State Employees Retirement Commission, 284 Conn. 149, 172-73 (2007).  “This court traditionally eschews construction of statutory language which leads to absurd consequences and bizarre results.”  Stamford Ridgeway v. Board of Representatives, 214 Conn. 407, 427 (1990);  Hartford Courant Co. v. FOI Commission, 261 Conn. 86, 101 (2002). 

30.  It is found that the respondents’ interpretation of 1-217, G.S., to require redactions from the Motor Vehicle Grand List and similar lists would lead to absurd consequences and bizarre results.  For example, it is found that such an interpretation would make the tax rolls inaccurate and incomplete, would impose an unending duty of inquiry on the assessor to determine who falls within the protected classes, or who no longer falls within the protected classes, and would destroy the historic integrity of important records that have been available to the public since Colonial days and before.  http://www.iimc.com/about_iimc/History_clerk.shtml, accessed 11/20/2008.

31.   The complainant contends that it is the burden of the individual who is a member of the protected class in 1-217, G.S., to notify the agency.  It is found, however, that the legislature deliberately removed such a requirement from the statute in 1999, in P.A. 99-77.  It is also found that depending on individuals to submit notice to various agencies would only create another ad hoc, inconsistent, unreliable method of enforcing 1-217, G.S., and would also lead to absurd consequences and bizarre results.

32.  Section 1-2z, G.S., the “Plain meaning rule,” provides:

The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance, be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.

33.   It is concluded that after examining the text of 1-217, G.S., and considering its relationship to other statutes such as 12-55, G.S., the plain meaning of 1-217, G.S., as interpreted by the respondents and intervenors, yields absurd or unworkable results.  It is concluded, therefore, that extratextual evidence of the meaning of 1-217, G.S., must be considered.

34.   It is concluded that literal adherence to the statutory language of 1-217, G.S., as interpreted by the respondents and intervenors, would be inconsistent with the [FOI] Act’s well-established policy favoring the disclosure of information.

35.  It is also concluded that the legislature did not intend, in enacting 1-217, G.S., to repeal, even partially, 12-55, G.S., or any requirement that such lists be accurate and complete for public inspection.  Davis, supra.

36.  It is further concluded that had the legislature intended, in enacting 1-217, G.S., to conceal the residential addresses contained in grand lists and similar records that are required by statute to be open for public inspection, it would have done so explicitly.  See, Davis, supra, at 318.  Also see, 7-27b (“Any person whose Social Security number appears on a document that is to be recorded on the land records of a municipality may expunge or cause to be expunged such Social Security number prior to the recording of such document.”  Also see, 54-240f and 240g (providing for the confidentiality of the marriage records and voter registration information of participants in the state’s Address Confidentiality Program). 

37.   It is concluded from the language and legislative history of 1-217, G.S., that the purpose of the law is to protect the safety of government employees.

38.  It is found that the most obvious and likely place to obtain a record containing a government employee’s residential address is from the employing agency. 

39.  It is concluded that the reasonable and common sense construction of 1-217, G.S., is that the statute applies only to the agency for which a protected employee works.   It is further concluded that 1-217, G.S., does not exempt from disclosure names and residential addresses when they are part of grand lists.

40.  It is concluded that such an interpretation of 1-217, G.S., reconciles the statute with the conflicting mandates of 12-55, G.S., and leads to the “effective and workable” result preferred in statutory construction.  Whitaker v. Commissioner of Correction, 90 Conn. App. 460, 490 (2005); Kenney v. State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, CV02-0813589, Hartford Judicial District, at Hartford (October 24, 2007).

41.  Accordingly, it is concluded that the respondents violated the FOI Act by failing to provide to the complainant the complete electronic file of the Motor Vehicle Grand List for the Town of North Stonington, described in paragraph 2, above.

42.  Based on the finding in paragraph 41, above, it is not necessary to reach the complainant’s claim of violation with respect to the respondents’ fee for providing electronic copies of records.

The following order by the Commission is hereby recommended on the basis of the record concerning the above-captioned complaint:

1.      Forthwith, the respondents shall provide to the complainant, free of charge, an exact electronic copy of the file that the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles provided to North Stonington, pursuant to 14-163, G.S., also known as “MVR102.dat.”

 

Approved by Order of the Freedom of Information Commission at its regular meeting of January 14, 2009.

 

 

____________________________

S. Wilson

Acting Clerk of the Commission

 

 

 

 

PURSUANT TO SECTION 4-180(c), G.S., THE FOLLOWING ARE THE NAMES OF EACH PARTY AND THE MOST RECENT MAILING ADDRESS, PROVIDED TO THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION, OF THE PARTIES OR THEIR AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE.

 

THE PARTIES TO THIS CONTESTED CASE ARE:

 

Peter Sachs

P.O. Box 1037

Branford, CT 06405

 

Assessor, Town of North Stonington;

and Town of North Stonington  

c/o Frank N. Eppinger, Esq.

O’Brien, Stuart, Eppinger & Collier, LLC

9 Masons Island Road

Mystic, CT 06355

 

Connecticut Department of Correction and Connecticut Department of Public Safety

c/o Assistant Attorney Generals

Stephen R. Sarnoski and Henri Alexandre

110 Sherman Street

Hartford, CT 06105

 

Connecticut Department of Children and Families

c/o Assistant Attorney General

John E. Tucker

110 Sherman Street

Hartford, CT 06105

 

Connecticut Judicial Branch

c/o Martin R. Libbin, Esq. and Viviana L. Livesay, Esq.

Court Operations Division

100 Washington Street, 3rd Floor

Hartford, CT 06106

 

AFSCME Council 4, Locals 387, 391 and 1565

c/o J. William Gagne, Jr., Esq.

970 Farmington Avenue, Suite 207

West Hartford, CT 06107

 

 

____________________________

S. Wilson

Acting Clerk of the Commission

 

 

FIC/2008-412FD/sw/1/22/2009