FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION
OF THE STATE OF CONNECTICUT

 

 

In the Matter of a Request
    for Advisory Opinion


 

     Advisory Opinion   #83

Senior Assessor, Town of Canton, Applicant

    

 

 

 

On April 28, 1993, the Commission considered and agreed to respond to a request for an advisory opinion filed by the Senior Assessor, Town of Canton.

 

In her request, the applicant notes that pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 14‑163 the State Department of Motor Vehicles (hereinafter "DMV") provides "Tax Assessment Files" to local tax assessors. These files contain information upon which the assessors prepare the motor vehicle portion of their respective grand lists. She also notes that historically these grand lists, and the information contained in them, have been considered public records by the assessors and copies are made available to the public in accordance with the fee provisions set forth in the Freedom of Information (hereinafter "FOI") Act, in particular Conn. Gen. Stat. 1‑15.

 

Recently, however, local tax assessors have received a letter from DMV indicating that, in keeping with a March 1, 1984 DMV memorandum, the "Tax Assessment Files" provided under 14‑163 are to be used solely for tax assessment purposes and that "[t]he furnishing of motor vehicle information for other purposes . . . [by DMV] is governed by . . . [Conn. Gen. Stat. 114-50a, and is subject to the fees stated therein." The March 1, 1984 memorandum asks tax assessors not to accumulate, sell or otherwise convey to third parties the lists of motor vehicle and snowmobile owners furnished under 14-163.

 

In essence then, the applicant seeks the Commission's opinion as to whether Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-50a limits the public disclosure requirements or fee provisions of the FOI Act with respect to the motor vehicle information provided by DMV to tax assessors pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-163.

 

The term "public records" is defined in Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-18a(d) 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.

 

Conn. Gen. Stat. 1~14‑163 requires the Commissioner of DMV to:

 

furnish to the tax assessors of 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 [DMV], with a description of such vehicles.

 

This directory and descriptive information is included in the "Tax Assessment Files" provided by DMV to the local tax assessors and is used by the assessors to prepare the motor vehicle portion of their grand lists. Because both DMV and municipal assessors are public agencies within the meaning of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1‑18a(a), there is no doubt that the "Tax Assessment Files" provided to the assessors pursuant to 14‑163 and the grand lists prepared by them constitute public records for purposes of the FOI Act.

 

Conn. Gen. Stat. 1‑19(a), the "centerpiece" of the FOI Act; Hartford v. FOI Commission, 201 Conn. 421, 429-30 (1986); states:

 

Except 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 inspect such records promptly during regular office or business hours or to receive a copy of such records in accordance with the provisions of section 1-15.

 

Furthermore, in the language of the Supreme Court, there is an "overarching policy" expressed in the FOI Act "favoring the disclosure of public records;" and construction of the act "must be guided by the policy favoring disclosure and exceptions to disclosure must be narrowly construed." Superintendent of Police v. FOI Commission, 222 Conn. 621, 626 (1992).

 

In light of the foregoing, it is the Commission's opinion that both the "Tax Assessment Files" and each town's grand list are subject to public disclosure by the assessors under 1-19(a) and are subject to the copying fees prescribed in Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-15, unless some federal law or state statute provides to the contrary.

 

Conn. Gen. Stat. 14‑163, the statute mandating DMV to furnish the "Tax Assessment Files" to the assessors, is silent on the matters of "secondary disclosure" ‑ i.e., further disclosure to others ‑ and fees. Moreover, the Commission is unaware of any federal law that addresses the issue at hand. In fact, the only statute of which the Commission is aware that may pertain to the subject matter of this advisory opinion is Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-50a.

 

Section 14-50a(a) sets forth the fees that the Commissioner of DMV shall or may charge for certain kinds of records or information maintained by DMV. Section 14-50a(b) empowers the commissioner to establish fees for information furnished on a volume basis to qualified "persons or firms." Section 14-50a(c) prohibits any "person, firm or corporation furnished information" under this statute from distributing "such information for any other purpose than that for which it was furnished." And 14-50a(d) establishes a fine for any "person, firm or corporation" violating the statute.

 

For the following reasons, it is the Commission's opinion that Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-50a does not act as an exemption to, or supersede, the operative provisions of the FOI Act discussed above in the circumstances here presented.

 

Of primary significance is the fact that the information at issue is provided to the tax assessors pursuant to 14-163, not 14-50a. And, as stated earlier, 14-163 is silent on the questions of secondary disclosure and fees. Thus, applying the "overarching" policy favoring disclosure and the rule construing narrowly exceptions to the disclosure provisions of the FOI Act; Superintendent, supra; 14-50a cannot reasonably be construed as an exemption to the provisions of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-19(a) and 1-15.

 

But even if the "Tax Assessment File" information were provided to the tax assessors under 14-50a, the limitations on further distribution of information provided under 14-50a(c) apply only to persons, firms and corporations. Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-1(a)(61) excludes from the definition of "person" for purposes of Chapter 246 (the chapter in which both 14-50a and 14-163 are located) "the state or any political subdivision thereof, unless the context clearly states or requires."

 

Section 14-50a does not clearly state or require the interpretation that local tax assessors, political subdivision officials and public agencies within the meaning of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-18a(a), are "persons" for purposes of that statute. Nor do assessors clearly fall within the category of "firm" or "corporation," two operatively undefined terms. Indeed, the language of 14-50a(b) suggests a commercial or business, rather than a governmental, context for the words "person," "firm" and "corporation."

 

Consequently, it is the Commission's opinion that Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-50a does not limit the public disclosure requirements or fee provisions of the FOI Act with respect to the motor vehicle information provided by DMV to tax assessors pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 14-163. For no federal law or state statute clearly acts as an exemption to, or supersedes, Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-19(a) and 1-15 in the circumstances here presented.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

                                                                                            By Order of the Freedom of
                                                                                            Information Commission

                                                                                           

                                                                                ________________________
                                                                                            Kenneth E. Grube, Chairman
                                                                                           

Dated: ___________________

 

Ordered:_________________

Debra L. Rembowski,
Acting Clerk of the Commission