The man’s body had been in the trunk of his Chevrolet Celebrity for two months. The parking attendant at the Hartford train station called police only when the stench and flies finally became unbearable. The car wasn’t stolen; its owner hadn’t been reported missing. Nobody seemed to find it unusual that he’d dropped out of circulation. On deadline, reporters at my newspaper received a tip about the man’s identity. If confirmed, this tip could go a long way toward helping us piece together the strange facts of this story. The next reporting step was obvious: Go to the man’s hometown of neighboring West Hartford, look on the motor-vehicle tax assessment records, and find out whether he owned the vehicle in which his body had been found. I stood at the counter of the assessor’s office, stunned and indignant, as the town officials turned me away. West Hartford, like many other communities, said it had been advised by state officials that the motor vehicle “grand” lists are exempt from disclosure under the Drivers Privacy Protection Act – except to attorneys, an exemption with no basis in law or logic. This directly contradicts a recent Connecticut court case that confirmed these records are open and public. Now the dispute was standing in the way of our breaking news story. Already troublesome by itself, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act is being cited to block access to many records that have anything to do with commuting and vehicles. This has become a problem in many Connecticut communities, and it has the potential to block access in other states. In West Hartford’s case, a solemn discussion with a city attorney – and citing the court case – resolved the situation. But here’s a different community, same problem: While collecting background information recently on the mayor of Waterbury, I asked to view that city’s motor vehicle tax assessment records as a way to nail down his assets. But the city officials turned me away, noting that I’m not an attorney (Are you sensing a pattern here?). By the way, I failed to mention that the aforementioned mayor is being held by the Feds on child-sex charges, which stemmed from a corruption investigation. The state has taken over Waterbury’s faltering finances, and its tax rate is by far the highest in Connecticut. Despite the many other issues on its plate, Waterbury refuses to allow public access to its motor vehicle grand list. That being the case, it will now gain another honor: defendant in our newly filed freedom of information complaint to the state’s oversight commission. Don’t let your town, city or state governments expand the provisions of the Drivers Privacy Protection Act by issuing blanket policies that close public access to other commuting-related records. We owe it to the public to protect access to these records, and we owe it to our profession to ensure that we don’t get turned away on deadline again and again.
Stephanie Reitz is a transportation reporter for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant. She is also president and FOI chair of the SPJ Connecticut Pro Chapter.