Every check that the Town writes is a public record and subject to disclosure to anyone who asks for those records under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. The same is true of the Town’s financial ledgers and even the MUNIS database that the Town uses to manage its finances. Anyone who says otherwise does not understand the law.
In other communities, the government posts these records (at least the ledger) online. It is called the “Open Checkbook” movement and it is becoming more and more common. The State of Connecticut does it. So does Trumbull. Trumbull even uses the same financial software as Stratford.
In October 2010, Mayor John Harkins promised that he would join the other communities that post their disbursements online and he did so very publicly in a press release that you can read here, but if you don’t want to download the file, here’s the important part of what the Mayor had to say:
“All town expenditures are legally considered to be public information obtainable through a Freedom of Information request,” said Mayor Harkins. “However, I see no reason for the Town not to be proactive in releasing this information as a means of increasing transparency and building trust with the taxpayers. At my direction, a complete list of disbursements made by the town will be posted each month on the Town of Stratford website, www.townofstratford.com. Residents will be able view how their tax dollars are spent, ask questions and provide suggestions to my office and their town councilperson and most importantly, rest assured that this administration welcomes public scrutiny.”
Those records were not posted online in the nearly five years since John Harkins issued that release, so during the public forum before the last Town Council meeting, I asked that the Town Council do something about it and pass an ordinance or resolution to require the Town to finally fulfill the Mayor’s promise. I also said that I would ask for the records and post them on this website if the Town didn’t post them on its own.
The Town Council took no action, so I have. Last Monday, I filed a Freedom of Information request with the Town asking for the Town’s accounts payable Journal for the month of July. I even included copies of what Trumbull provides on its website. You can read the request here. I also stopped by the Town’s finance office and asked for the records in person. Within hours of the original written request, the Town’s Finance Director prepared the records and sent them to an outside law firm for review because that’s what she was told to do even though state law says that there are no remotely conceivable reasons that the Town can withhold those records.
Almost two weeks later, I still haven’t heard a word, so I will be forced to file another appeal to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. Unfortunately, that’s what citizens need to do to get transparency from Stratford Town Hall.
When I do get the records, I will post them right here on Open Stratford.