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Smart Issues Illegal Gag Order On Public Records

by Paul Bass | Jan 9, 2014 4:20 pm

(50) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall, Media

(Update: 8:23 p.m.) New Haven’s new city/town clerk has ordered his staff not to hand out public documents to the public—especially the press.

(He rescinded part of that order late Thursday after this story originally appeared.)

The clerk, Michael Smart—who took office Jan. 1, and whose campaign for the office is currently the subject of a state investigation into alleged widespread absentee-ballot fraud—issued the order in a memo to his staff dated Thursday.

“Press/Media/ inquiry requests for interviews, documents etc., but not limited to inquiries from other individuals/representatives of of any entity are to be directed to the City Town Clerk, who will give office staff a directive on how to proceed,” the directive reads in part.

Click here to read the full memo. It concerns “the acceptation of documents recorded on land records.”

Smart’s position is part time. He controls the filing and public viewing of a wide range of documents, from land transactions and lien filings to election reports and absentee ballot submissions.

He said that if he is not in the office—which is much of the time—then staff must reach him by cell phone before releasing documents.

Smart’s new rule violates state law, according to Valicia Harmon, staff attorney for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

In other Connecticut town clerk offices, as in New Haven’s before this week, staffers are instructed to produce routine public (non-exempt) documents promptly upon request by citizens (including reporters).

“You have effectively no access if he [Smart] is not there,” Harmon said. “As long as we’re going to construe the law correctly, access to public records during regular business hours can’t have to go through the city clerk, because the city clerk may not be there.”

The Independent came across the new policy Thursday afternoon during a visit to the clerk’s office at 200 Orange St. in search of filings by candidates in an upcoming special election for Ward 3 alderman. At the same time, a citizen involved in campaigns came to the office seeking information about that race as well.

Paul Bass Photo Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown (pictured), who works full-time in the office, informed the visitors that Smart had instructed the staff that it may no longer release such documents, that he personally must approve their release.

Smart happened to be in the office at the time. He came to the front desk in the office’s public area, and explained the new policy. Click on the video at the top of the story to watch the conversation.

“The new policy that all information is going to come through the city/town clerk. Then what we will do is proceed from here,” Smart said.

“When it come to the media, any information that they may need, I want to make sure that the city/town clerk knows what’s going on in the office.”

Smart, who campaigned on making public information more readily available to the public, was asked what happens during the hours when he’s not present.

“They can call me. I have a city cell phone,” he responded.

Smart (pictured) said he is still getting acquainted with his new duties: “Me, as a new city/town clerk, I want to understand how the office operates. In doing that, things that I feel comfortable with I’m going to try to institute.”

At one point in the conversation he said the staff had misunderstood—that he did not intend to include regular public documents in the ban. Upon request he produced a copy of the memo, which clearly included “documents” in the list of off-limits releases.

“If there’s any misunderstanding, we’ll clarify it,” Smart then said.

Update: Thursday evening Smart said he had “clarified” his order with his staff. The public including the press, will definitely be able to obtain public records at the front desk whether or not he is present, he said. His order pertains to interviews with the press about the workings of the office, he said; he said only he may speak for the office. “I clarified. I sent out a memo clarifying press and the general public. What it was intended to do, the other one, was just to deal with interviews and commentary. But as far as documents and general information within the office, it is business as usual,” Smart said.

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posted by: robn on January 9, 2014  4:42pm

Amazing. I think I’m with CITOYEN on this one. Its profoundly amusing that we’re less than a week into the new Harp administration and have been provided with such a bodacious bounty of bungles.

posted by: ELMCITYPROF on January 9, 2014  4:43pm

Mr. Smart ha a clearly violated the law while directly going against his alleged commitment to transparency.  There is absolutely no need for citizens to ask his permission to access public records.  If his office wants to know what’s going on then I suggest he show up to work and talk with his full time staff.

posted by: Elizabethaiken on January 9, 2014  4:57pm

This is stunningly unacceptable.

posted by: Razzie on January 9, 2014  4:58pm

Oh boy ... This new City/Town Clerk is shaping up to be a questionable development. if I interrupt my schedule and come down to Clerk’s Office to get a copy of a public document, I sure as heck don’t want to have to turn around and go back home because he’s not in. Parking, traffic, inclement weather ... these factors trump bureaucratic ego any day.

C’mon Mike, lighten up. Public service means serving the public. You simply cannot personally screen every request for public information. That’s what your office employees are there to do—full time.

posted by: Wooster Squared on January 9, 2014  4:58pm

Wow…..

So our town clerk, who’s campaign is under investigation for voter fraud, now thinks he alone gets to determine who has access to public records?

Someone needs to file a suit against this guy. Unbelievable.

posted by: Westville voter on January 9, 2014  5:09pm

Did anyone really expect a member of the Harp/UNITE team to treat transparency as anything but a cynical buzzword? Welcome to the new regime. The worst is yet to come.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 9, 2014  5:23pm

There is a simple solution to this problem. 
Just FOI EVERYTHING! 

Everything is writing, people.  EVERYTHING!

posted by: Joe City on January 9, 2014  5:24pm

What would be the purpose of his review of the documents? To withold or censor them? Or to try to find out who’s plotting against him?

posted by: Noteworthy on January 9, 2014  5:36pm

This is an extremely disappointing development, not to mention an illegal one. The documents in the City Clerk’s office are public documents. There is not one shred of paper anywhere in that office that we have not paid for - either by filing or by the property taxes we pay. Michael Smart’s “new status” doesn’t change that and any change over in power, should in no case result in less access or restricted access. This office operates for us, not for Mr. Smart.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on January 9, 2014  5:40pm

Smart is the City/Town Clerk now not Sally Brown. I know he will be a superb clerk, as he was an alderman, and take the office to the next level, if Brown stops her war and sabotage of him. I understand she still wants to remain the top cheese as deputy. But the voters elected him and he is the boss.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 9, 2014  6:49pm

If the new City Town clerk is violating the Freedom of Information Act, then the state needs to intervene to enforce the law.
If one is determined to run for public office, candidates should study the job closely to fully understand the duties and powers of the office before running for the office. There is much to be learned while on the job initially, but you had better be well versed in the basic functions and responsibilities of the office before running for the office.
If you run on a platform of modernizing the Town Clerk office, making it more transparent and accessible to the public, even putting information on line, and then win the office and do just the opposite by personally setting yourself up as the sole intermediary between the public and the PUBLIC’S DOCUMENTS AND RECORDS, that person is UNFIT to hold the job because he has betrayed the public trust because he does not trust the public. What is he afraid of and what is he trying to control? How in heaven’s name does Michael Smart think he can work part time at the office and field questions about public record access the rest of the time via cell phone away from the office? It just does not make sense and implies he has no confidence and trust in his staff who have been doing this job without controversy for years.
The City-Town clerk job is a waste of the taxpayer’s money, state law notwithstanding. The Deputy City Town clerk position should be the full time position. Eliminate the part time City-Town clerk and have ONE FULL TIME CITY TOWN CLERK!

posted by: UBHolden on January 9, 2014  6:51pm

Absolutely pathetic! Makes no sense to issue such an order.  This is the City Clerk you elected folks so just sit back and smile!

posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 9, 2014  7:11pm

Wow. And to be taking Sally Brown’s office in addition to the lock-down?

It does sound like, outside of title searches, Team Harp wants to be immediately in the loop as to what public information gets shared, and with whom.

My hunch is that this is all about the outstanding building fees owed on the Harp family mansion. Was the certificate of occupancy issued without payment of the $15-$20,000? I guess I’ll have to go FOI the information find out? Or maybe under the new system all it takes is just a directcall to Mike Smart?

posted by: East Rocker on January 9, 2014  7:47pm

This is outrageous.

Paul - Can you go down to the Corp Counsel’s office tomorrow and ask him on the record what he thinks of the legality of Smart’s new policy?

posted by: Paul Wessel on January 9, 2014  7:59pm

I guess this is what happens when elected officials show up for no-show jobs.  Stunningly written memo, too.  Thank you for posting it.  Can we see the memos of January 6, 2014 to which it refers?

posted by: DRAD on January 9, 2014  7:59pm

I posted the other day, in the comments section of the article that discussed Jackie James’s sort-of botched appointment, the following question: “Is this group comprised of rank amateurs or are they just plain incompetent?”  I guess I have to include “fundamentally corrupt” in that list of possibilities.  It really is just shocking how awful the new team at City Hall is rolling out their management of the City.  On the bright side - - there are only about 22 months left before the next election.

Oh and @ ‘beyonddiscussion’ - nice try. . .this is not Sally Brown’s fault. Not one bit.  But go ahead. . . try to distract from Mike Smart’s unprofessional, likely illegal and suspect behavior.

posted by: WestvilleCitizen on January 9, 2014  8:07pm

I hear several echoes of the Elicker campaign:
1) Mr. Smart, it’s time to start handing out your cell phone number!  Then you need to go retake high school civics (but be sure to keep the phone on).

2) I would respectfully suggest to Mayor Harp that many of the nearly 10,000 voters across this city who voted for transparency and ethical standards in our public officials could be won over if you would show that you heard us by speaking out against your out of control running mate.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 9, 2014  8:23pm

Razzie!!!!! I agree! :)

beyonddiscussion - did you even read the story?? Your comment makes not sense?

posted by: Guest on January 9, 2014  8:29pm

Democracy is based on the freedom of the public to access government information. This policy is not only creating a deterrent to request public information and is illegal, it undermines the whole purpose of the rights of the people to question their government, whether local, state or federal.

Jumping through hoops to get “permission” for access to public documents- especially election filings, as described, is just absolutely ludicrous. This isn’t a dictatorship where the person in charge just makes up new rules to suit some obvious behind the scenes need to know and keep track of who is requesting information.

Makes you wonder where this directive really came from.

posted by: Guest on January 9, 2014  8:33pm

I agree with Mr. Saunders- everything in writing and we as the public should make sure that Mr. Smarts phone is constantly ringing for requested documents.
I will be thinking up documents to request only because its my LEGAL right to request AND RECEIVE them. (copy charges will always apply lol)

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 9, 2014  8:50pm

In practice, the only difference between this policy and the policy under past management is that the run-around is built right into the process, rather than being an unspoken policy.

Yes Guest, copy charges do apply, 10 cents per page, from what I remember. but sometimes the fee is waived, depending on the run-around you have already been given.

posted by: darnell on January 9, 2014  8:51pm

Wow!!! It is good to know that none of you folks have ever made a mistake. Mike Smart states that there was a misunderstanding and that he would correct it. I know that there has been a subsequent memo sent that that corrects that mistake. And in regards to offices, the deputies office was moved closer to where the action is, not taken away.

You all asked for a full time clerk, you got one. He is feeling his way around; there is a learning curve to master. His staff would do the city well to be helpful.

For all you Elicker and/or anti Harp folks, is this going to be the mode of operation for the next two years; attack attack attack?

posted by: Willie Williams Jr on January 9, 2014  9:00pm

How Are You Going To Come Into A City Jon and Don’t Know The Policy Pertaining To That Office?.

posted by: westvilleresident on January 9, 2014  9:09pm

Did everyone click through to that amazing “Acceptation” clarification memo?
Holy. Cow.
So, Mayor Harp, what do YOU think of these developments from your slatemate?

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 9, 2014  9:12pm

One man NSA

Man I am so disappointed I am beside myself.

posted by: robn on January 9, 2014  9:25pm

Joking aside; besides his spelling errors, Mikes an intelligent man. He knew exactly what he was doing; illegally using a public information office to further his own interests and the interests of his union coalition; that is monitoring political enemies and attempting to control the flow of information to ward off scandal. This is the antithesis of this office and I call for Mr Smart to step down and for the BOA to dissolve this position. Reprehensible. And BTW Mayor Harp is either with Mr Smart or not. There’s no pussyfooting around this issue.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 9, 2014  9:31pm

I didn’t have an opinion on the Town Clerk position until this issue came up. Now I’m definitely for eliminating the position. Good job, Mike Smart—you convinced someone who voted for you that your position ought to be eliminated!

posted by: random on January 9, 2014  9:31pm

West ville, you asked how the mayor feels about what’s going on. Likely she “didn’t know anything”.

posted by: NHV Greenie on January 9, 2014  9:56pm

Again, whoever gets hired to manage PR for this administration has their work cut out for them.  It’s not even been 10 days.  Paul Bass, your job and those of your staff are secure!

posted by: cp06 on January 9, 2014  10:04pm

I am curious as to the same thing “westvilleresident” asked: what does the mayor think about this?

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 9, 2014  10:05pm

WIth the update one can not forget when JD did this. all I could find on it was the last line in this story.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2008/05/city_suspends_2.php

Paul had done a compost video about it but it seems to be deleted
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2007/11/gagged_duty_bou.php#comments

I remember how upset Mike was about it. and then this women god rest her soul was fired for talking..
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2008/05/city_suspends_2.php

Angain I am saddened by this more than mad.

posted by: FacChec on January 9, 2014  10:09pm

The first thing Mr. Smart could do is present a professional persona to his staff on his first week in the office. He comes across as a bully. Mr. Smart reported to work dressed as if he was at his other gig, at his sports store.

The professional first approach to his staff may have served mike better if he laid back and learned what was being performed and how.

After a short period of evaluation, he could have met with the staff again and implemented changes based on empirical knowledge.

He didn’t do that, in fact he didn’t even support his campaign pledge to be inclusive, transparent, and his pledge to keep the office open until 9PM for late night working folks. By demanding each and every inquiry be routed through him, seriously reduces the efficiency and effectiveness of an office, which has never had a citizens complaint regarding access. I surmise Mike fears information leaving the office that could implicate him in the coming state SEC voter fraud investigation.

Whatever his reasoning, perhaps paranoia, I hope he comes to his senses and reverses his stance on the restricted flow on citizen requested information. His new policy violates the rights of the handicap, deceased, sick and shut-in and legal representatives seeking relief in their behalf. Let it go Mike, return to normalcy.

posted by: Fairhavener on January 9, 2014  10:46pm

Smart is currently under investigation for allegations of voter fraud even before stepping foot in this office that, ironically, handles voter records, and then within 5 business days manages to involve himself in more egregious behavior? Incompetency comes to mind, but am afraid that there is more to it than that.

UNBELIEVABLE! This is what 2014 city offices look like?

posted by: ConcernedWestvillecitizen on January 9, 2014  10:53pm

Excellent story Paul! I am glad I voted for Rodriguez..

posted by: Guido Brunetti on January 9, 2014  10:57pm

Anderson your hunch may be right about the building fees. More than a decade ago an LCI zoning officer made the mistake of citing one of Wendell Harp’s vacant properties.

I think it was in Westville (perhaps the mansion under construction?) There is written correspondence documenting his outrage directed at the employee, FOIing the employees personnel records.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 9, 2014  11:12pm

sorry correction on the first link..it is at the end of this story
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2007/11/press_passes_do.php

posted by: BenBerkowitz on January 10, 2014  1:09am

Paul,

I wonder if this poll is asking the right question given the circumstances. My guess is that most people who vote to eliminate the position are really voting to eliminate the individual holding the role.

A public opinion poll about the office holder would be interesting as well.

posted by: JayC on January 10, 2014  8:50am

Smart… is Not!

posted by: obi on January 10, 2014  8:52am

Could this be an attempt to CYA ART > “town clerk, who’s campaign is under investigation for voter fraud”.....if the investigation has not been silenced, any and all info needed for that must be given.  So why all these restrictions now? Eliminate position and the holder of same.  Will be very interesting if an investigation turns up anything.  But NOT because there is no evidence to support voter fraud…....but silencing.

posted by: robn on January 10, 2014  10:24am

In this incident, Sally Brown went by the book. Unfortunately this book was written by Mike Smart who has outdone both Orwell and Kafka, ordering that the department limit information and if asked why, to state that they are unable to answer because of the limits of information.

The bottom line is this. If the City Clerk Position is removed from the ballot (as it should be), it will be replaced with a mayorally appointed Department Director. Were that the case, Mayor Harp’s appointment would likely be Mike Smart. However, in that case ,the public and the BOA would be entitled to question the qualifications of the candidate; questions such as, does the candidate have a specialized degree in interdisciplinary data management?, is that person a software specialist who can bring 375 years of data into the present? Is the candidate a mathematician? A policy specialist? A librarian? Does the candidate understand that the basic mission of the office to collect and distribute public information?

I was often wondering what could possibly motivate Bob Proto, Gwen Mills and the union coalition to want control of the otherwise sleepy City Clerks position. I thought it was just a plum no-show job for a political hack and never dreamed it would be political monitoring and censorship.

The BOA needs to take action on this. Dissolve the position and let the mayor (in the bright light of day) appoint a qualified candidate who can run the department.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 10, 2014  11:00am

BenBerkowitz: I can only speak for myself, but my view now is that the position itself should be eliminated. The problem isn’t simply Smart (who I actually do not believe was intentionally trying to suppress anything from public scrutiny), but the fact that an individual could, even inadvertently, stand as an obstruction to the public gaining access to public documents. (This only two years after the previous office holder very vocally advocated for prayer in schools at the 2012 inauguration.)

It does not appear to me that these documents need a gatekeeper, although I would be the first to admit that I do not have a full grasp of the position (which is why I’ve always voted “Beats Me” on the NHI town clerk polls until now). If the staff is capable of handling the documents, then I say eliminate the position and distribute its salary & benefits to the full-time staff on site. If not, perhaps what the city needs is a qualified & capable librarian to work this position, rather than a politician.

posted by: Elm City Luv on January 10, 2014  11:49am

This illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal illegal…
from “Mother” to “Big Brother” wearing a new suit…this is an illegal regulation of public information…Smart is not responsible but whom ever allowed this to happen should be suspended until this is resolved.  The FOIC should be notified/consulted before this has effected other city departments.  And what are Smart’s qualifications anyway that grant him the say so this subject without higher-up approval???
People before politics!

posted by: writewrong on January 10, 2014  12:33pm

I think Corporate Counsel better make plans to move someone into that vacant office instead.

posted by: carpediem on January 10, 2014  2:03pm

As a lawyer, I went to the City Clerk’s office many times to search land records, and made copies of whatever I needed. No one ever, ever, questioned me about what I was doing. Even if Mr. Smart wants to be aware of what is happening in his office, he has no right to know what public documents are being requested and by whom. Hopefully he has changed his approach, but I still cannot fathom how he still appears to believe that he can interfere with journalists doing their jobs. Public means public, citizens mean all citizens, and the First Amendment still lives.

posted by: cp06 on January 10, 2014  3:10pm

@darnell

In this story you comment “For all you Elicker and/or anti Harp folks, is this going to be the mode of operation for the next two years; attack attack attack?”

in another story on this same site you recently commented “I believe that there should ALWAYS be a dissenting voice in the room, to keep the debate honest.”

it seems as though you are saying that if you do it, it is dissent. but if someone else does it or if you disagree with their opinion it is then an “attack.” am i understanding this right?

posted by: darnell on January 10, 2014  3:42pm

@cp06
Good point. My mistake. Is it smart to admit to your mistakes publicly?

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 10, 2014  7:17pm

Part of being professional is looking professional. I hate to pile on the criticism of the new city town clerk, but he is not properly dressed for the office he holds in these photographs. If he is the head of a government department of the city of New haven, he should wear a collared shirt, tie, suit or sports jacket. Some may consider this old fashioned, but in certain circles appropriate dress is expected.
So my advice to the City Town clerk is: remember the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act, respect the public and be honest with them, remember the press is watching you, and dress for success!

posted by: JMS on January 11, 2014  10:45am

Welcome to the Harp administration. Smooth talking their way out of controversy or just not addressing it at all (has anyone heard a word from Harp on this?). The pattern continues.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on January 11, 2014  12:39pm

I agree with @darnell. There was a misunderstanding and Smart moved swiftly before the day was out to correct it. He’s not perfect. He made a mistake and corrected it without hesitation. There is a learning curve here. The guy is obviously trying to transform a no-show job into a hands-on, active position that strengthens service to the public. Change is always hard and bitterly resisted by some. But the election’s over, let’s stop the venom and hair trigger attacks. If he fails to perform in two years, vote him out.

posted by: robn on January 11, 2014  8:09pm

BEYONDDISCUSSION,

Please stop apologizing for Mike. He knew what he was doing because he’s an intelligent person. This is not an example of somebody who’s sorry. Its an example of somebody sorry he got caught.

Using the office for political cover and monitoring is unacceptable and Mike should resign.

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