Letter: THS graduate denied information for senior thesis

To the Editor:

I am a Trumbull resident and a senior at the Ohio State University (OSU) where I am majoring in Economics. For my senior thesis, I am working with another student, a public affairs major, to submit research to the Denman Forum at OSU, an opportunity to showcase outstanding student research. Our abstract is to compare the taxing and spending habits of a town over the past 15 years, compare and contrast the different policies by Republicans and Democrats, test the different statement claims by both parties during the election, and attempt to develop a formula to predict the mil rate. After defining those factors, we would plan to suggest policy changes to better protect taxpayers by maximizing the town's resources. We selected Trumbull because we have been through a series of both Democratic and Republican administrations, and I am a resident. We thought obtaining the necessary data would be relatively straightforward. We could not have been more wrong.

In my effort to get information from the town, I originally emailed the town’s Finance Director. After several days with no response, I called the office only to be told that my email probably went to her junk folder. Could the email address listed on the town’s website for citizens be directed to someone’s junk folder?

I then emailed the entire Board of Finance to see if they could point me in the right direction. In response, I received a letter from First Selectman Tim Herbst telling me that I had to file A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the information requested. In his response, he stated “Unfortunately, the administration and the Office of the Town Attorney have been inundated with multiple Freedom of Information requests, many of them political and in some instances, ridiculous in nature...Given the scope and breadth of your request, coupled with the hours of time and employee manpower it will require to comply, I am suggesting that you re-send a formal Freedom of Information request to our attention.”

As per his instruction, I have submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. Unfortunately, (and in violation of Federal law), the town has not complied. Although, they insist the contrary. They have given me some of the information requested, but have withheld critical data.

The information I am requesting should be readily available, including:

  • Total town debt from 2000 to current

  • General fund supplemental appropriations from 2000 to current

  • Approved budgets from 2000 to 2009

  • Final budgets from 2000 to 2009

  • Projected and actual student enrollment from 2000 to current

As hard as it may be to believe, the town has asked me to pay an estimated $2,000 to receive copies of the budgets and information on the town debt. They are asking me to pay the maximum allowed by law of $.50 a copy, while they are under no obligation to charge me anything. There is no way that I, as a college student, can pay for this information nor should I have to.

Additionally, I was told that some information is on their website, but I cannot locate it. When asked for assistance, they provide me links to sites that do not exist. For the appropriation data, I was told that they do not have access to their system (MUNI) before the 2011 fiscal year.  However, it is my understanding that they have used this system since 1999, so the data should be readily available. Finally, for something as simple as student enrollment numbers, I have heard nothing from the Board of Education despite the FOIA request being forwarded to the superintendent.

I am simply trying to conduct research for my senior project and the current administration is making it almost impossible for me to get the information I require. This study will take months to complete, and time is of the essence. I am astounded that I had to file multiple FOIA requests. It is unfathomable that the town cannot access information on their own accounting system and is offering up broken links to vital town financial data. Why is the town putting up roadblocks? I can only wonder if it is because I am a registered Democrat, and this is an election year or perhaps they fear I might be onto something. Why else would my hometown be making this so difficult for me? One would think that they would like to help me, a graduate of Trumbull Public Schools and a resident for 16 years, shine in the greater world. Apparently that’s not their objective, as they are busy hiding behind the process and technicalities. They seem to be making this political, when in fact it should just be an objective analysis of facts. Why wouldn’t a town want to have this kind of analysis performed for free?  How truly sad that this is how my hometown treats one of its own.
Tyler Morin