May 22 marked exactly one month from the day that any action occurred on proposed legislation inspired by Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia, her staff, and other members of the state Town Clerk’s Association who want to see certain restrictions on state death records. And the local officials behind the proposal were not happy about it.
While the origins of HB 5733 stem from Ms Aurelia’s refusal to release to various members of the press and public detailed death records on the victims of the 12/14 shootings, members of her staff also see the legislation as a contemporary solution to protecting deceased residents and their immediate survivors from invasions of their privacy and identity theft. That bill was co-sponsored by State Representatives Mitch Bolinsky and DebraLee Hovey and Senator John McKinney.
Another piece of legislation, HB 5421, was last taken up April 24, and continues to languish, along with its counterpart proposal, on the state legislature’s agenda as the hours and days begin swiftly ticking down to June 7, when the current session ends — along with any hope for bills still mired in process.
According to its text, HB 5421 would restrict access to the death certificate of a minor for a period of six months after the notice of death was filed with a Connecticut town clerk. The other, HB 5733, contains more sweeping implications.
Except for immediate family members and certain officials and genealogists, it would provide, for a $15 fee, documentation containing only the name, gender, date of death of the decedent, cause of death, and the town in which the death occurred. The requestor, whether a member of the press or public, would not have access to any other information contained in the official death certificate.
Ms Aurelia, who was monitoring any progress on the bill while attending an International Town Clerk’s convention in New Jersey, said that many of her colleagues from other states in attendance were surprised to hear Connecticut was seeking restrictions that were already boilerplate elsewhere.
She also heard on May 20 that Rep Bolinsky and Rep Dan Carter were still working behind the scenes to try and get the bills onto the floor for deliberation and a vote. Ms Aurelia was also concerned about an amendment tacked on to the original language that would toss out initiating a uniform policy across the state, instead leaving discretion about how much information to release up to any of the 169 separate Connecticut town clerks.
“There was specific language and that is what we were pushing for,” Ms Aurelia said. “We don’t want the language in there now. And we’ve been resending a request to revert to the original language up to Hartford every week requesting they use it.”
Another Chance In September?
Ms Aurelia conceded that she might rather take the proposal up again during the next session in the fall, rather than abandon the uniform statewide standard.
“There has to be a change to the current law on who is authorized to view or receive a full copy of death records,” she said. “We spelled it out in our proposal, and it is comprehensive.”
Corresponding with The Bee by e-mail May 22, Rep Bolinsky said with two weeks remaining in the session, not everything on the calendar actually gets heard and then, not every bill that is heard, passes.
“As I see it, there is more yet to written in this story because there is some ambiguity in the state statute as it pertains to death certificates,” he said. “Hearings are under way at the state level to address and hopefully resolve this. I am not party to those hearings. This needs to be addressed.”
Rep Bolinsky said he is working to strike a balanced proposal that is satisfactory to all sides and, “as I have stated before, maintains the privacy and dignity of all affected individuals who wish to have their privacy preserved.”
He acknowledged there has been some controversy about the motivation of these bills.
“We are aware of the FOI concerns associated with this effort. All reasonable concerns are being addressed, although we may never satisfy those conspiracy theorists who think we are trying to cover something up,” he said. “The truth of the matter is pretty simple. Some reporters will stop at nothing to sell a story. I will stop at nothing to protect my constituents. My motivation and actions are solely intended to prevent additional heartache and unwelcome outside attention coming upon our Sandy Hook families and the community at large — period.”
If the amended bill is passed and signed into law, Ms Aurelia believes it would be harder to change, than trying to come back in the next session with a proposal containing the original language. She said ten members of the Town Clerk’s Association Legislative Committee all collaborated on and worked crafting that original language, and she is urging town residents who want to see uniform privacy protections for death records to contact state legislators urging them to adopt the bill as originally proposed.
“I hope discussion about this has already elevated the issue in the public eye,” she said. “I have been getting e-mails and notes from people around the state I’ve never met who don’t want to see this level of personal information available to anyone willing to pay a small fee.”
Ms Aurelia is already facing Freedom of Information requests from numerous media outlets, as well as citizens and others from out of state, some of whom she said strike her as conspiracy theorists or having a “morbid curiosity” about the 12/14 tragedy.
She said the town attorney will work with her if and when any appeals are filed over her refusal to release records that today are open and legally accessible to the public and press.
Assistants Speak Out
Newtown’s Assistant Town Clerks Renee Weimann, Monica Duhancik, and Aileen Nosal all have faced individuals requesting those death records, either in person or on the phone. And each of them offered written or in-person testimony early on during public hearings on the bills.
Ms Weimann would prefer to see a uniform standard of practice mandated across the entire state. And she wants to see action taken as soon as possible.
“What I would hate to see is our families, who might be well along in their grieving and recovery processes, suddenly see their child’s death records showing up in news reports,” she said. “The legislature immediately addressed the much more complicated issues related to gun control.”
“This is not controversial,” Ms Nosal added, “why is it taking so long to handle?”
Ms Weimann surmised it is because the average state resident is not aware of the amount of information available to the press and public. Ms Nosal takes issue with those who say there have been no such protections on death records going back to Colonial times.
“Today’s death certificates contain a lot more information than those historical death certificates. And with the immediate and global access to information on the Internet, this is a change that is important in today’s world of identity theft and cyber crime,” she said.
“Just because it is [currently] legal to obtain and publish doesn’t make it right,” Ms Weimann said. “We’re advocating for changes that protect people’s privacy, including our families who suffered this unimaginable tragedy.”
Ms Duhancik also favors a bill that would require uniform standards for handling death notice distribution. She favors the state using a “pocket card” similar to the one that town clerks use to release birth information to anyone other than immediate family members.
She also favors additional protections in HB 5421 for those deceased under the age of 18.
“We should be able to exclude things like the deceased mother’s maiden name, which is frequently used as a security protection for online data, and the place of burial,” she added.
“Morbid curiosity is not a compelling reason to allow this information to be viewed,” Ms Nosal said.