In the Matter of a Request
for Advisory Opinion



     Advisory Opinion   #51

Third Taxing District of the City of Norwalk, Applicant





On November 25, 1981, the Commission considered and agreed to respond to the request for an advisory opinion filed on behalf of the Third Taxing District of the City of Norwalk.


In its request, the applicant states that it is a small municipal agency whose prime function is to supply electricity to residents of East Norwalk.  It has two full-time office employees who answer telephones, receive payments from customers and perform all record keeping tasks.


On various occasions over the past summer, a person inspected the applicant's records for the years 1974 1977.  This inspection occurred after an agreement whereby the person consented to the presence of counsel for the applicant during her inspections, which were carried out over some 31 hours on several dates.  The person had also consented to make appointments with the applicant's counsel prior to conducting her inspection of records. Apparently, this person now desires to inspect the applicant's records from 1977 to the present.


Essentially, the applicant seeks the Commission's opinion as to whether Conn. Gen. Stat. §1‑19(a) permits a public agency to require that a person make an appointment for the inspection of records at a mutually convenient time so that the agency can plan staff time and arrange for the presence of non-staff attorneys and/or accountants.


For the reasons set forth below, it is the Commission's opinion that an agency cannot require the imposition of such preconditions.


In relevant part, Conn. Gen. Stat. §1‑19(a) states:



(a)    Except as otherwise provided by any federal law or state statute, all records maintained or kept on file by any public agency . . . shall be public records and every person shall have the right to inspect such records promptly during regular office or business hours .... [*] Each such agency shall keep and maintain all public records in its custody at its regular office or place of business in an accessible place and, if there is no such office or place of business, the public records pertaining to such agency shall be kept in the office of the clerk of the political subdivision in which such public agency is located or of the secretary of the state, as the case may be.


This section does not explicitly empower an agency to require that a person make an appointment to inspect public records.  Nor does the language of the statute imply the power to impose such a precondition.  Obviously, as custodian of its public records, an agency has the right to take necessary steps to protect them from destruction or mutilation.  And these steps may properly include supervision of the documents while they are being inspected pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. §1‑19(a).  But again, this does not imply the necessity to incur an additional expense by retaining non‑staff attorneys or accountants to be present during such inspections.


What is clear is that public records must be kept accessible and must be made available to a requesting person "promptly during regular office or business hours."  Assuming that an agency's regular office or business hours are fixed and established, it remains to consider what the word "promptly" means in the context of the statute and of the question posed by the applicant.


“Promptly" has been defined as "[r]eady and quick to act as occasion demands. Black's Law Dictionary, Revised Fourth Edition. See also Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition (unabridged). The former authority also stresses the caveat that "the word depends largely on the facts of each case."


It is the Commission's opinion that the word "promptly," as used in Conn. Gen. Stat. §1‑19(a), means quickly and without undue delay, taking into account all of the factors presented by a particular request.  Because the facts are going to vary, and vary in significance, in each case, the Commission cannot definitively set out in this opinion all of the factors that should be considered in determining promptness.  The Commission can, however, offer some guidance in this area.


The Commission believes that timely access to public records by persons seeking them is a fundamental right conferred by the Freedom of Information Act.  Providing such access is therefore a primary duty of all public agencies, and should be considered as much a part of their mission as their other major functions.  Although each agency must determine its own set of priorities in dealing with its responsibilities within its limited resources, providing access to public records should be considered as one such priority. Thus, it should take precedence over routine work that has no immediate or pressing deadline.  If agency personnel are involved in a high priority project, or one with an immediate or pressing deadline, a request for records should be weighed against that project for priority.  Some of the factors that should be considered in this situation are: the volume of records requested; the amount of personnel time necessary to comply with the request; the time by which the requestor needs the information contained in the records; the time constraints under which the agency must complete its other work; the importance of the records to the requester, if ascertainable; and the importance to the public of completing the other agency business without the loss of the personnel time involved in complying with the request.


In weighing these and other factors, common sense and good will ought to be the guiding principles.   The Commission believes that if an agency politely explains to a person seeking access to records why immediate compliance is not possible, that person will most likely understand and appreciate the agency's obligation to balance its duties as custodian of public records with its other duties.  And as long as it appears to that person that the agency is not trying to unduly delay compliance, or impose unnecessary restrictions, he or she will most likely try to accommodate the agency.  Indeed, it has been the Commission's experience that when an agency is sensitive to the needs of the requester, in most cases the agency is able to meet such person's essential requirements in a manner that also permits it to satisfactorily perform its other functions.  In the final analysis, it is the Commission's opinion that this rule of reason and courtesy, if implemented, should eliminate the vast majority of potential conflicts between a citizen's right to timely access to public records, and an agency's duty to comply while processing other important business.



                                                                                            By Order of the Freedom of
                                                                                            Information Commission


                                                                                            Judith A. Lahey, Chairman of
                                                                                            of the Freedom of Information

Date  ___________________



Mary Jo Jolicoeur
Clerk of the Commission