By Brian Lockhart
BRIDGEPORT — If elected City Council members want information from Mayor Bill Finch’s administration, they can always do what John and Jane Q Public does — file a Freedom of Information request and get in line.
That can mean waiting weeks and sometimes months for the data.
That was one of the recommendations City Attorney Mark Anastasi made in a four-page response to renewed efforts by Councilman Enrique Torres, R-130, to try and force agency heads to be more responsive to individual council member requests.
Councilwoman Trish Swain, D-132, who is considered one of the council’s more independent members and chairs the committee considering Torres’ resolution, was unhappy with Anastasi’s response.
“In essence, the City Attorney states that the City Council’s power to procure information refers to the council as a whole, disallowing individual council members to make information requests,” Swain wrote in an email to her colleagues, Anastasi and Finch. “This seems to be a severe roadblock to the checks and balances that the council is suppose to provide. We have been elected by residents in our district to form a legislative body which votes on many important issues in the City. As volunteers, it is difficult enough to educate ourselves on these city issues, and I’m saddened that the denial of (Torres’) resolution will make it even more difficult to do our jobs properly. I look forward to further discussion on the matter.”
The lone Republican on the 20-person council, Torres has often lamented that he, as an elected official, is not given immediate access to data he feels is necessary to properly govern and act as checks-and-balances to Finch’s office.
To that end, Torres recently called on his colleagues to pass a resolution requiring department heads or their designee to move more quickly when a council member asks for something.
As was the case when Torres first complained about a lack of transparency after his election in late 2013, Anastasi, who has shielded three different administrations with his legal opinions, beginning with Joseph Ganim, then John Fabrizi and now Finch, responded that only the full Council or committee chairmen can demand information and documents.
What that means is, given Bridgeport is a solidly Democratic town, any council member who is either at odds with members of their party or, as in Torres’ case, a member of another party, would have to convince the mayor’s allies on the council to support him or her in their requests.
Torres is hoping to be the Republican Party’s nominee to challenge Finch for a third term in November. He has a reputation for casting wide nets when seeking information.
It is a practice Torres’ critics argue can eat up the time of city employees juggling their regular responsibilities.
The administration’s policy toward the council is not that different from the Finch administration’s long-standing media policy, which forbids department heads from speaking to the press without the knowledge of the mayor’s communications staff.
Anastasi in his opinion said the executive branch through Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Nunn, one of Finch’s right-hand men, “is committed to assisting the council in moving its legislative business.”
He suggested individual members submit requests through Nunn, who, Anastasi said will make every effort to get them their answers within a reasonable period of time and “without undue disruption of ongoing city operations and workload.”
“Finally,” wrote Anastasi, “individual City Council members have the same legal rights as any person to file Freedom of Information Act requests for public records with the city.”