Saturday, August 25, 2007
By Neil Vigdor
Denied first by Greenwich, a town man's bid to gain computer access to maps of fire hydrants, power lines, water mains, sewers and other infrastructure in neighboring Stamford has been turned down a second time for security reasons.
The state Freedom of Information Commission ruled unanimously Wednesday that the city of Stamford does not have to turn over computer files containing those maps to Stephen Whitaker, a self-employed computer consultant.
"Knowledge of the direction of the water supply would be useful to an individual seeking to introduce chemicals to the water supply," FOIC hearing officer Victor Perpetua wrote in a decision letter adopted by the commission. "Knowledge of the size and location of sewer mains would be useful to an individual seeking to access and harm public buildings or utilities through those sewer mains."
Whitaker has been seeking the files from the city since late 2005, overlapping with a similar request denied by town officials in Greenwich.
Both communities keep the information in geographic information system databases, which include aerial photographs of the two communities and supporting information on the location and dimension of landmarks such as wetlands, flood zones, open space and property lines.
Some of the information is available to the public but other parts have been restricted by officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy said that while he is generally in favor of giving the public access to information contained in the city's GIS database, he does support limitations on certain data.
"So, I think it's a balancing act," Malloy said. "I support the decision, but I also caution that people have to hold their government accountable and not use (exemptions) as an excuse to withhold data."
Whitaker has accused the two communities of exaggerating security concerns, which he said has enabled bureaucrats to keep vital information to themselves and out of the hands of the public that could be used to plan for everything from taxi routing to emergency respoonse. For example, he said residents in both municipalities could plan better for fires and floods if they knew the location of hydrants and storm drains.
"It's not that I want this stuff as much as I don't want to see us go backwards in public records law for the reasons of overreaction to an event that happened six years ago," Whitaker said.
In August 2006, Stamford officials turned over some of the materials in the city's GIS database to Whitaker but took advantage of a law passed after the terrorist attacks to restrict other images.
The law gives the state's public works commissioner limited powers to restrict public access to information that risks harm to any person. In its decision this week, the FOIC upheld that authority.
Whitaker said he filed a motion yesterday for the commission to reconsider the ruling.
"So we're beginning to see the fallout of this irrational closure of what are public records, which are now claimed exempt at the very time we need to see them to question whether our infrastructure is properly maintained," Whitaker said.
Greenwich officials resorted to using the same exemption after the state Supreme Court ruled in June 2005 that they lacked concrete evidence to support their claim that the release of the images presented an immediate danger to the community. Whitaker missed the deadline to appeal that decision to the commission, however.
"It's very clear to me that there are things that certainly should be in the public eye and there are things that shouldn't be," said Daniel Warzoha, the town's emergency management director and a former fire chief.
Warzoha said a working group of neighborhood leaders in the flood-prone Pemberwick neighborhood has access to maps of storm drains.
But Warzoha said he felt uncomfortable providing the general public with town-wide maps of critical infrastructure, including bridges.
"We're the gateway to New England, and if you cripple our infrastructure here, the backups would be horrendous," Warzoha said. "All one has to do is look at the collapse of the Mianus River bridge to see what it did to the economy."
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