Public records to be made private after funds questioned

The Westport Historical Society is headquartered in the Bradley-Wheeler House on Avery Place.

The Westport Historical Society is headquartered in the Bradley-Wheeler House on Avery Place.

File Photo / File Photo

WESTPORT — Public documents at the Westport Historical Society will become private after funds from the town were called into question.

For decades, the organization received $7,500 from the town for the storage of voter registration lists and property tax records dating back to the 1850s. The payments made the documents open for the public to view without a fee.

But Westporter Morley Boyd said while doing research on journalist Sigrid Schultz in the spring, the historical society’s hourly rate of $40 to review its private archives came as a surprise.

After learning about the town’s contribution to store public documents at the building, Boyd questioned its purpose and why all the society’s records weren’t accessible for free.

“As a taxpayer I raised the matter at several budget hearings this year,” Boyd said. “I didn’t understand why we are paying a private organization to store town records when we have our own document storage place on Bayberry.”

Despite a check stub dated April 17 obtained by the Westport News stating the payments were meant for record storage, Finance Director Gary Conrad said the funds were misidentified and instead are an allocation to help the historical society with expenses.

“Apparently years ago those records were shifted over to them and somebody classified it as we were paying them for rent. Those records don’t have any value to the town,” he said, adding Westport strictly follows state statutes for record retention.

The confusion led to this year’s $7,500 allocation being marked a “gift” in the town budget, meaning the once-public documents will be considered part of the society’s private collection come next year and require research fees to view. The town also plans to address in its next budget whether it should continue giving the money at all.

Meanwhile, Westport Historical Society Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram insists the $7,500 payments were given to preserve records.

“It takes quite a lot to preserve old documents.” she said. “... These documents would be very important for genealogical research especially if you’re trying to create town history. As historians they’re very valuable, not just to us, but to others who wants to use them.”

Ganeshram confirmed the records, which are originals, will continue to be available to the public free of charge for the rest of the year. But next year, if the town decides to cut the funds, or give them as a gift or grant, things could change.

“What will happen is since they have said they will not pay for record storage, those documents would become private next year,” she said. “That means if anyone comes to use them they will have to pay research fees.”

Charging rates to view private records in a historical society’s vault is not out of the ordinary, Ganeshram added. Rates throughout Fairfield County vary, with free access at the Norwalk Library’s history room and a $5 flat fee for access to the entire Fairfield Historical Society facility.

Some historical societies in the state also charge to do research for visitors; Stonington Historical Society, for example, charges $75 a hour.

Due to the Westport Historical Society being a small organization with no sophisticated security system, an archivist has to be present for viewing records, Ganeshram said, hence the $40 per hour fee for nonmembers. Research by members is $30 an hour according to the organization’s website.

Archival research remains free for 15 minute or less, and for student researchers.

“If an archivist has to be there for someone to review documents, they can’t do the rest of their job,” she said. “That means I have to pay someone to do their job and that is why there is a fee.”

Archivist Sara Krasne, who began working at the historical society in 2013, said the research fee at that time was $12. While she understood the current fee could be viewed as steep, other organizations were not necessarily the same size.

“The costs of maintaining these archives have continued to rise, and we don’t have a lot of funding because we’re not a town-funded institution,” she said. “That’s why the fee is what it is now.”

Boyd said while it was unfortunate the public records stored at the historical society could now become private, his broader concern was freedom of information.

“As a researcher, it runs counter to the notion that you want to share and celebrate the history of Westport,” he said. “I think (the historical society) has a duty to make those records available to the public.”