Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act gives every member of the public the right to request copies of almost all information maintained by government entities and departments, including tax collector’s offices. Information located in a computer, on a diskette, or in any other electronic storage medium or device is just as much of a public record as if it was a paper document. This includes not just the easily-printed software screens we use every day, but also the “hidden” data which may be difficult to extract from the device’s memory or translate into English. With only a few exceptions, a copy of this information must be provided to any person who asks for it in writing.
Unlike records which exist only on paper, the format in which electronically-stored information is provided is up to the person requesting it: a printout, diskette, or any other format which can reasonably be accommodated. The Town must do whatever is reasonable to copy the data, including reformatting or reprogramming its equipment to release the information or even hiring a professional retrieval service to do so. If this process will take more than four business days, the Town must notify the person in writing that the request has been received and will be complied with promptly or by within an estimated time.
State law strictly regulates the fees which can be charged for making the copies. Only fifty cents per page can be charged for photocopying an existing printout, and the fee for electronic data will usually be limited to the actual cost of the diskette or other storage medium requested. If (and only if) computer reformatting, reprogramming, or outside vendor assistance is necessary, the hourly salary or invoiced fees of the person doing this work may be charged to the requesting person. Otherwise, nothing can be charged for the time it takes to simply search for and retrieve electronic information.
Tax collector offices which do not provide copies of their electronic records promptly, for the correct fees, and in the proper format can quickly find themselves the subject of an enforcement hearing before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford. Make sure your department knows its obligations and follows them.
Adam J. Cohen, Esq. is Corporate Counsel of the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association and represents dozens of towns and districts. He can be reached at 203-330-2230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.