Open records closed to public view

By: Joe Strupp

Constitution State seals access to key auto records


Connecticut’s car tax records ? which detail the state fee collected by local cities on all automobiles ? have long been a key source for residents and reporters checking up on who is paying their fair share.
But a decision by several cities to withhold car tax information in recent weeks has some news organizations and press-freedom advocates worried. They contend that the loss of such public information is a hit to journalistic freedom and the public’s right to know.
“The media’s role is to make sure the checks and balances on the abuse of power are in place,” said Mitchell W. Pearlman, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, an independent state agency that reviews open-records act violations. “This is absurd,” he said.
But city officials said they are just following the advice of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which issued a bulletin in July urging cities to consider restricting documents, such as the car tax records, or face possible federal penalties.
“Do not permit the public to look at the complete ? tax collection records,” the bulletin said. “Anyone requesting personal information should be directed to the Department of Motor Vehicles.”
The warning is in response to the federal 1997 Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits state agencies from releasing personal motor-vehicle information, such as names and addresses. The controversial law has been ruled unconstitutional twice, but will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court later this year.
“We were concerned about liability to that law,” said New Haven tax assessor Larry Hughes, discussing his decision to restrict access to the records. “The recommendation has been that we take some action to protect the municipality from liability of federal law.”
Congress passed the federal law two years ago following the stalker-related killing of actress Rebecca Schaffer in California, which reportedly occurred after the killer hired a private investigator who obtained Schaffer’s address from motor-vehicle records.
Critics of the law said it’s nearly useless in many instances because of loopholes that allow car dealers, insurance agents, auto manufacturers, and private investigators to continue getting access to the records.
Hughes said the car tax records are popular sources of information for residents, journalists, and credit agencies. He said he receives three to four requests a day.
Other Connecticut cities that have stopped releasing car tax records are Bridgeport, Ansonia, Madison, West Haven, Trumbull, East Haven, and Old Saybrook, according to the New Haven Register. Most offer the same reason for the protective measure ? fear of federal retribution.
“We’re doing what we feel is the law,” Bridgeport assessor Linda Davis told the Register.
Bridgeport has been the leader in the move to block access to the records, and recently defied a state Freedom of Information Commission order to reverse its policy. The city has appealed the order to the state Superior Court.
Rebecca Daugherty, a representative of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the blockade of information involving car tax documents is worrisome.
“It is important to be able to know if public officials are cheating or taking advantage of tax laws,” said Daugherty. “When reporters can find that out, it serves the public well.”
New Haven Register editor Jack Kramer agreed. “It sends a bad message and sets a bad precedent,” he said of the restrictions. “This is the role the press plays, in outing the discrepancies and the information that the public needs. Frankly, we’re worried about it.”
Reporter Bill Cummings of the Bridgeport-based Connecticut Post, also criticized the restriction. “It is public information,” he said. “It is something that is useful to us.”
Still, one city changed its policy after hearing these concerns. West Haven Mayor Richard Borer said he plans to direct his assessor to begin releasing car tax information.
“Everything we do is the public’s business, and the public has a right to know,” he said.
Connecticut is one of several states that collect car taxes through its cities, but reportedly the only one withholding such records.

(Editor & Publisher WebSite:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 18, 1999) [Caption]

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