The town of New Canaan violated state sunshine laws by failing to notice or open to the public a series of meetings held over several months last year, state officials say.
Site visits conducted by two-person teams of the Building Evaluation & Use Committee—a group charged in February 2017 with studying and making recommendations about town-owned buildings—constituted “special meetings of a subcommittee” and “were subject to public notice and meeting minutes requirements,” according to attorney Valicia Dee Harmon, hearing officer of the state Freedom of Information Commission.
After overseeing hearings at the Commission’s offices in Hartford on Dec. 5 and Feb. 6, to address a complaint about the meetings brought by NewCanaanite.com, Harmon found that the town, committee and Co-chairpersons Penny Young and Amy Murphy Carroll violated two provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Though the respondents “wanted to comply with the FOI Act,” Harmon noted in her decision, they “did not understand that the work of the subcommittees would be subject to the same requirements of the FOI Act as would the work of the full Committee.”
“It is concluded that a FOI training session would be beneficial to the respondents and one is so ordered,” Harmon wrote in the Aug. 20 decision.
The voting body within the FOI Commission is to take up on the matter at its Sept. 12 meeting.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the town would challenge Harmon’s findings.
NewCanaanite.com filed a complaint with the FOI Commission on Sept. 22, one day after learning that, as Harmon noted in her decision, “the subcommittees conducted unnoticed site visits to town-owned buildings during March, April, May, June, July, August and September of 2017.”
Ultimately, the Committee issued its comprehensive report in December, a detailed study of all town-owned buildings in New Canaan (minus the school district’s) that included a number of recommendations regarding important structures such as Waveny House, Vine Cottage, the former Outback Teen Center and Irwin House. (At least one of the Committee’s recommendations, to raze the “Mead Park Brick Barn,” would find support among town decision-makers.)
The Committee’s extensive and consequential work included gathering data for input into a software program that will track the lifecycles of those same town buildings, helping municipal officials make decisions about use and funding.
Yet in carrying out their mission, members of the Committee violated two specific sections of the FOI law, Harmon found. One specifies that “[t]he meetings of all public agencies … shall be open to the public.”
The other section specifies: “Notice of each special meeting of every public agency … shall be posted not less than twenty-four hours before the meeting to which such notice refers on the public agency’s Internet web site, if available, and given not less than twenty-four hours prior to the time and place thereof … in the office of the clerk of such subdivision for any public agency of a political subdivision of the state … The secretary or clerk shall cause any notice received under this section to be posted in his office. Such notice shall be given not less than twenty-four hours prior to the time of the special meeting … The notice shall specify the time and place of the special meeting and the business to be transacted. No other business shall be considered at such meetings by such public agency …”
Represented by Town Attorney Ira Bloom, the town argued its case on two fronts. First, Bloom argued that the FOI Commission had no jurisdiction over the matter brought by NewCanaanite.com because the complainant did not report the violations within 30 days of finding out about them. Second, Bloom argued that the site visits conducted by members of the Committee did not rise to the level of public meetings.
Both Bloom and NewCanaanite.com filed legal briefs arguing their sides. Harmon rejected both of Bloom’s arguments.
In her decision, the hearing officer ordered that “[h]enceforth, the respondents shall strictly comply with the requirements of” those provisions of the FOI Act that they violated.
“Forthwith, the respondents, or their designee, shall arrange for a FOI Act training session to be conducted by the staff of the FOI Commission,” Harmon said. “The respondents, or their designee, shall forthwith contact the FOI Commission to schedule such training session. All seven members of the Committee shall attend the training session.”
The decision against the town follows another FOI violation cited by the state in May, where municipal officials broke the law by withholding a draft P&Z document.