Updated with additional information 6:42 a.m.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling promised a much more user-friendly city website Monday in a convivial City Hall gathering meant to reaffirm his stated desire for an open and transparent municipal government.
While Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr said recently that the city is under no obligation to post minutes and/or agendas on the city’s website, Rilling agreed with members of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) and the League of Women Voters that the website should post information – including backup materials provided to Common Council members – in a searchable format.
The gathering marked Sunshine Week, which was started in 2005 and coincides with the birthday of America’s fourth president, James Madison. Rilling read a proclamation and said a Freedom of Information Commission worker will be in City Hall soon to train staff members.
“We are doing the training for the staff and making sure that they understand that the mindset for the mayor’s office is that we are an open and inclusive,” he said.
CNNA member Diane Cece read a statement on behalf of the organization, asking for timely and accurate posting of minutes, agendas and backup documents for all city and committee meetings on the city’s website in a format that allows citizens to search them, and copy and paste them.
“You have my support on that, thank you very much,” Rilling said. “We are going to be working towards – hopefully very soon – redesigning our website and making it more user friendly.”
The group of 10-15 people broke out into applause on that one.
“I know,” Rilling said.
Spahr said in a recent email to NancyOnNorwalk that the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act states that agendas will be filed in the city clerk’s office 24 hours before a meeting. There is no requirement for them to be posted on a website.
While minutes must be made available seven days after a meeting, according to the law, there is no requirement that they be posted online, he said.
“As a matter of public service the City strives to keep as much information including Minutes and Agendas posted on the City’s website – even though not required to do so by the FOI Act. Thus, the City has a practice of going over and above what it is technically required to do by the FOI Act,” Spahr wrote.
Diane Lauricella came to the Monday gathering prepared with a printout of her recent letter to the editor outlining suggestions for the city website. Afterward, she said she has had an ongoing dialogue with Spahr. Some City Hall employees think that rather than just providing documents for citizens to look at, they have to make copies for them, for which there is a charge, she said.
“That is the opposite of what the law says. So we have to do some tweaking. … It deters the public from wanting to seek and read these documents,” she said.
Cece said she felt encouraged by Rilling’s attitude.
“I think he is going to improve stuff, both with the access to the information itself and the ease of use through the city website,” she said.
Steve Cooper said it’s all about representation, responsiveness and accountability.
“I’m happy that I am living in an era that has a law like this,” he said. “It’s just an important thing as a citizen to know that at least on paper that we strive for this goals, to be responsive, accountable and representative. The people who are running for office, holding in office and appointed to office should know that this is something the public values.”