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.
Kudos to NewCanaanite.com for being so astute and working to bring clarity to the law where it may have been murky. I think New Canaan and its citizens will be better for it. However, it is easy to see how the co-chairs of the committee might not have understood “that the work of the [2-person] subcommittees would be subject to the same requirements of the FOI Act as would the work of the full Committee,” as the state Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer, attorney Valicia Dee Harmon, put it. Perhaps more important to note is the fact that Ms. Harmon determined in her decision that the committee co-chairs “wanted to comply with the FOI Act.” New Canaan is blessed with an almost uncountable number of highly capable, well-intentioned volunteers who give tirelessly of their time and talents for the benefit of us all. The members of the Building Evaluation & Use Committee are among those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for such service. Thank you all.
People who break the law have no place in our government. That document is probably now void as it was created by an illegal process. The ramifications are far reaching.
First it illegally withholding documents, now illegal meetings.
The ability to freely access public information and allow its citizens to have an open and honest debate is a sign of a healthy town—one where there are no “backroom” handshakes, unsaid agreements on voting, or “cooked” deals. Taxpaying New Canaan residents deserve full transparency from their government officials where their interests and rights are respectfully considered and protected—not a white wash. Anyone who tells you differently or thinks they should decide what public documents you can see, what you can hear or debate belongs in a different type of government. Any elected or appointed town official or town employee who engages in willful blindness and continues to advocate for an illegal practice or directs others to violate the law has no place in our town government.
The illegal conduct that has come to light continues to demonstrate the need for change by our town officials and employees. Immediate action needs to be taken by our Board of Selectmen, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy implemented for these types of transgressions.
Congratulations to the Newcanaanite for bringing this issue forward.
Government is the conduct of the public’s business……..especially when the allocation of limited dollars is routinely decided as much by preference as utility.
It’s great that a small growing town such as ours is on top of things. Now let’s get on top of what’s happening in the white house.
If memory serves me correctly, we had a similar situation with the Fields Building Committee, established by the Board of Selectmen in late May of 2017. Minutes were posted 2 months late and, in one instance, the agenda was posted on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 8:30 pm for a meeting the following morning Friday, September 15, 2017 at 8:30 am.
Your memory serves you well. Here is link to the story so well chronicled by Michael.
By the way what ever happened to the audit committee report on the Fields project? Shouldn’t that have been made public by now?
Where is the report with photos of the buildings involved? I thought I saw the report online and now can’t find it. These were smaller buildings throughout town. Where is this inventory listed now?
There’s a link to the report online in the story, Andrea. Click where it says “comprehensive report.”