FOIC ruling to face challenge

This July, the Elm City Resident Card celebrated both its one-year anniversary and a long-awaited court victory — although opponents are looking to cut the celebrations short.

At the conclusion of months of testimony and hearings before the state Freedom of Information Commission, New Haven’s decision to keep private the identities of city residents who signed up for the card was upheld by the full commission. The decision follows the recommendations made by a hearing officer — the FOIC version of a courtroom judge — the month before. While the decision secures the immediate future of the card program as it enters its second year, plaintiffs in the case said they still plan to pursue legal action to overturn the FOIC decision, starting today.

Journalist Chris Powell and Dustin Gold, founder of the anti-illegal immigrant Community Watchdog Project, had sought the names, addresses and photos of ID cardholders from the city. The five-member FOIC found that to release the identities of cardholders would constitute a public-safety risk, just as the city had argued. The city’s argument was also backed by the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security at the hearings.

But Gold said Thursday that he plans to file papers today to overturn the FOIC decision.

“We will be appealing the decision to Superior Court,” he said.

Gold, who has been a vocal critic of the program, has said in the past that he recognizes that the city might suspend the program rather than open the idetity records to public view. At the hearings, he argued that the information — just like internal correspondance in government offices — should be public under the state’s Freedom of Information Act guidelines.

When informed of Gold’s stated intentions by a News reporter, City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the city’s position remains the same as ever.

“We are very pleased with the [commission’s] findings and feel this is information that should remain confidential,” she said Thursday. The card is available to “people from every neighborhood, from every walk of life. We continue to feel this is a strong and successful program.”

The ID-card program, which is available to all residents regardless of immigration status, was created by the city — and rolled out in late July 2007 — to improve access to various city services, including the library, the beach and parking. The city has made efforts to reach out to many segments of the New Haven population by going to churches, senior centers and local high schools to sign up residents.

At the time of the initial proposed ruling, Community Services Administrator Kica Matos said the FOIC decision should reassure residents who wish to obtain the ID card.

“New Haven residents should feel comfortable coming down to City Hall to apply for their Elm City Resident Card with the confidence that their information will be kept safe and secure,” Matos said in the city’s first public statement following the decision.

Matos and former the New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz have said that before the program’s creation, undocumented immigrants had increasingly become the targets for assault and theft because, without access to banks, many would carry large amounts of cash on them.

The city created the IDs partially to alleviate that danger. The card’s debit feature has been augmented to allow it to act as a full ATM card, as well as a second form of identification to open up a checking account at local banks. Furthermore, city officials said they hope that having identification will encourage immigrants to report more crimes without hesitation.

In his recommendation, Sheldon London, the hearing officer for the FOIC, cited violent anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric and threats received by the city as evidence that the release of the records would constitute a danger to public safety. He added that releasing private information about cardholders could make them vulnerable to violence.

Gold has said that the threats, while unfortunate, should not close off public access to information.

The conclusion to the court drama came just in time for the city to celebrate the first anniversary of the creation of the ID-card program.

On the anniversary, the city released a statement noting that three foundations — The Four Freedoms Fund, The J.M. Kaplan Fund and The Atlantic Philanthropies — had agreed to help fund the program in its second year, so that the program can continue without using tax dollars.

As of July 24, the one-year mark, 6,507 cards had been issued — over a thousand of which were to minors — marking an increase from a total of about 5,500 in late April and 3,200 as of late October of last year.

Yale students have been actively involved in promoting the resident card. Last November, students and the city organized “New Haven Solidarity Week,” a five-day period during which card registration was hosted at Dwight Hall, and which was accompanied by debates and forums relating to the card and immigration policy.

More than 500 new IDs were issued during Solidarity Week.

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