HARTFORD — For the last 22 years, Tom Hennick has been the go-to source in Connecticut for help navigating the state’s Freedom of Information laws. As he prepares for a slow handover of his role at the Freedom of Information Commission — he has been the agency’s public education officer since 2001 — Hennick agreed to a wide-ranging interview with CT Examiner at his Capitol Avenue offices in Hartford this past week.
The 69-year-old Hennick said he’s proud of the work of the commission during his tenure. Hennick said that Connecticut has one of the country’s most robust sunshine laws, and it’s the only commission in the country that authors binding rulings.
A Naugatuck native, Hennick told CT Examiner that the state’s Freedom of Information laws have held up well over the past two decades – even as his office handles more requests dealing with videos and recordings. But, he said, the state legislature, which funds the agency to the tune of about $2 million annually, has been slowly weakening its authority.
“The legislature tends to say ‘Oh that one little exemption won’t hurt’ and it’s just like one little brick in the wall,” Hennick said. “Over the years, the FOIC laws have been weakened by the legislature, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I think, all too often, we rush in with exemptions that don’t make sense at all. The legislature tends to toss stuff in at the last minute. I’d like to see something in the statute that says if there is going to be a change to the FOIC there, at the very least, needs to be a public hearing. I think the Legislature has too much power, I guess, by putting in too many exemptions without thinking about the unintended consequences. I think that is concerning.”
As a former reporter and public official, Hennick has relied on Freedom of Information laws himself for access to public records, public meetings and other sources of public information. He still oversees the commission’s training and mediations, but Hennick told CT Examiner he is slowly phasing out his role as he works with his successor Russell Blair to take over when Hennick hangs up his hat and heads into retirement.
Asked for an example of how the laws have been weakened, Hennick pointed to “a well-intentioned law” written back in 1998 that says the home addresses of certain individuals shouldn’t be released. “Today, though, all you have to do is Google somebody so every year an agency comes and asks to have its addresses [for additional employees be] added in every year and we have fought it [unsuccessfully].”
Colleen Murphy, the commission’s executive director and general counsel since 2005, said the agency has a staff of 16, mostly attorneys, but is budgeted for 18. She said there are about 700 to 900 formal complaints filed annually. A complaint must be filed within 30 days of an alleged violation and the agency then has up to one year to issue a ruling.
Murphy told CT Examiner that Hennick is the perfect fit for the role of public education officer.
“I call him the everyman because he speaks on a level that every person can relate to,” Murphy said. “He’s been both a journalist and public official himself and he obviously works here at the commission, so, he understands, you know, the requirements and obligations that public officials have. He understands that sometimes these rules can be pesky, but they are also very important.”
Hennick, whose family owned the then-Naugatuck Daily News from 1945-1987, worked at several newspapers in the state as both a general assignment reporter and sports reporter. He also held several roles as a public servant as a member of the Board of Education in Regional District 13 and as a selectman in Durham.
Hennick’s long-running relationship with the commission is also a matter of family. His father, Fred Hennick, was a commission member from 1989-1993 and chair from 1995-2000. Tom Hennick was brought on in the face of a survey that showed low compliance with the law. So the agency went looking for a public education officer, and Fred Hennick said he had the perfect person for the role: his son.
Since that time, Hennick has maintained a grueling workload, including training sessions in 161 of the state’s 169 towns. He’d often give the 90-minute training in municipal buildings, police departments and other locales four to five nights a week.
“I encourage interaction,” Hennick said. “Those taking part are public officials, citizens, journalists, anyone. There has been an uptick of the Police Departments asking me to come to do workshops; I did one last week in Guilford.”
Hennick has worked under four gubernatorial administrations: John Rowland’s, Jodi Rell, Dannel Malloy and Ned Lamont. Hennick said “it’s fair to say they have all believed, or at least expressed the belief, in transparency. But, other people are handling the FOIA issues for them so it’s been kind of a roller coaster with some of them.”
Hennick said the two parts of government that receive the most complaints are Police Departments and the Department of Correction. Inmates, said Hennick, make many requests with the commission.
“They [inmates] are going to have a habeas hearing and they want different records,” Hennick said, “One that sort of leaves me shaking my head is one [inmate] string of complaints about the content of meatloaf. Without being disparaging, they do have a lot of time on their hands and some of the requests are very creative.”
Asked about the most interesting cases he’s handled and or heard of, Hennick replied: “The meatloaf one gives me a chuckle, but you also deal with records being sought in murder cases and then the next call you get is about someone who’s having a dispute with a neighbor about chickens in the backyard. They are looking for planning and zoning permits and things like that but it just sort of brings it all back to reality.” Hennick said the most intriguing cases are “the ones that make the headlines, we had many [ complaints] after Sandy Hook.”
Hennick said that the laws are also a matter of good governance, noting that both former Gov. John Rowland and current Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim spent time in prison for corruption – based on evidence obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
Some people, Hennick said, might be wary or might not know how to file an FOIC complaint, while others are known to the commission for filing dozens of them, if not more.
Hennick said he tells everyone that the two most important parts of filing such a complaint are “be specific” and file within 30 days of the alleged violation or else the complaint will not be handled.
“You must be specific,” Hennick said. “A lot of times agencies flounder because the requests are not clear. So, make a specific request and then try to work with the agency. A lot of these agencies may seem as if they are not willing to comply, but most actually want to comply.” There is no cost to file a complaint.
Those filing complaints do have the option of asking a Superior Court judge to hear their case if the FOIC doesn’t rule in their favor, Hennick said.
Most people will have one or two cases with the commission, but others, Hennick said, take advantage of the system. It’s why the state legislature passed a “Relief from Vexatious Requesters” law under the state FOIA in 2018. There are some that file dozens, even hundreds, of complaints, and that takes up the time of the commission’s attorneys unnecessarily, Hennick said.
“If you are talking about things that have changed in the past 20 years, it’s that some people have started to use this law as a weapon, as a means of getting people due to an ax to grind, people with a political agenda,” Hennick said. “Some of them [complaints] are just way over the top and out of hand.”
There was an East Lyme resident, who Hennick declined to name, who filed upwards of 450 complaints with the commission against various state agencies over a five-year period. The 2018 law bans him from making FOIA complaints for a year, Hennick said.
“Not only were their requests voluminous and vexatious, but they were not civil about it,” Hennick said. “They were often nasty and unprofessional and there needed to be a trigger as a way to stop it.”