Town-Appointed Committee Advised That Summer Meetings Were Unlawful

Though the state has yet to issue a formal decision on the matter, town officials on Thursday said they’ve been advised that subcommittee meetings held out of the public eye this summer were illegal.

L-R: Amy Murphy Carroll and Penny Young, co-chairs of the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee, during its Sept. 28, 2017 meeting at Town Hall. Credit: Michael Dinan

The Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee is charged with studying the uses, physical condition and capital needs of some 44 town-owned structures in New Canaan, excluding school buildings. Appointed in February, the seven-member committee is expected this fall to produce a report with wide consequences for the town, shaping the future of buildings such as the former Outback Teen Center, Waveny House, Playhouse and Vine Cottage by offering options that may include using them in new ways or even selling or razing them.

Though the committee has not met as a whole group since June 28, its members continued their work through the summer—specifically, conducting site visits to public buildings in smaller “teams” to meet with municipal officials and gather information for the final report.

None of those meetings were noticed as such and so they were not open to the public.

During a special meeting at Town Hall, committee co-chair Penny Young said she and her fellow co-chair, Amy Murphy Carroll, “have been notified that one of our procedures is incorrect.”

“I have worked for the town for 20 years and it is absolutely new news to me,” Young said.

The comments come on the heels of a complaint that NewCanaanite.com filed with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission on learning of the summer meetings. State officials say that the agency’s legal team will review and adjudicate the matter.

It isn’t clear how many meetings committee members had, what was discussed, what sorts of questions were put to the department heads who occupy the public buildings, what the municipal officials who maintain them said or any other information that could help the public follow the committee’s thought process in its consequential work.

In nine public meetings held from February to June, members of the committee voiced questions about how New Canaan Nature Center buildings are used, what may be done with the Richmond Hill Road garage and what new opportunities Waveny House presents.

Young said the committee now is working toward a final report that could materialize mid-October.

According to Young’s interpretation of the FOI law, the “teams” dispatched to public buildings qualified as subcommittees because of the number of members that formed them.

“Because you are you are designated as a pair, that makes you a subcommittee of a committee, and therefore your meetings were supposed to have been noticed,” she said.

Starting immediately, Young said, committee members would get around the requirement by conducting the site visits individually.

“Going forward, as you are doing your research you will be doing it without the benefit of another set of eyes and ears on it,” she said.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the co-chairmen’s interpretation of FOI law holds up or whether the change would satisfy it.

Asked during an interview after the meeting why the committee wouldn’t continue working in pairs but with legally required public notice, Young said that would present practical problems in scheduling.

The committee divided up the work of gathering information about individual buildings in New Canaan among its members, designating the fact-finding “teams” early on.

At the meeting, Carroll said: “So in terms of how we initially set up teams, just divide up and decide who is going to take what in the lead for these buildings.”

She added: “We were just trying to get two sets of eyes on it that was the only objective.”

Members of the committee referred to the subcommittee designation as “a technicality” and asked whether the original two-person teams would be able to “shift back and forth.”

Young answered: “As long as [just] one person is doing it.”

A guest at the meeting, Betty Lovastik, asked whether it would be possible to have a subcommittee member and someone from the public at the site visits.

“Is that still considered something that you would have to notice?” she asked.

Young answered: “If it is one person meeting with someone, that is not a meeting, so it would not have to be noticed.”

The committee’s members—in addition to the co-chairs, Christa Kenin, Neil Budnick, Bill Holmes, Ben Bilus and Martin Skrelunas—are volunteers. The town periodically hosts FOI training for those who take such positions, and materials on FOI compliance also are supplied to those appointed to town boards, commissions and committees at the time they start, according to officials in the first selectman’s office.

6 thoughts on “Town-Appointed Committee Advised That Summer Meetings Were Unlawful

  1. Because one of the co-chairs of this committee is running for re-election this year, I’ll consider this an election-related article, and as per our policy adopted after the Republican caucus, I will ask any commenters to use full first and last, verifiable names. Thank you.

  2. Typical non transparent P Young. When told not complying instead of complying finds a way to continue skirting the statue. Time for change on Nov 7.

  3. I am not a lawyer, but the question of whether a study team of two people constitutes a subcommittee with the attendant issues of public meeting notice, etc. was not totally clear when we received guidance as members of the Charter Revision Committee. Our guidance said it was not a subcommittee but I heard from some source (I don’t recall who) that there were conflicting cases on the point. Regardless, to suggest Penny is “skirting” the issue by simply not having the benefit of two sets of ears in these sessions is ridiculous. What she is doing is behaving carefully in accordance with a conservative reading of the rules, although to my mind to detriment of the process, as having that second set of ears surely improves the outcome.

    • There is a history here of lack of transparency and a above it all attitude that is the point. The citizens pay the taxes and have a right to be noticed on all meetings . If a statue is written you comply. I do not agree with all PCAOB and SEC statue in my profession, however I comply. This goes to lack of transparency which is a long existing problem in our town.

    • Dave raises the central issue: There’s a lack of clarity on this question. There has been for a long time. This is far from the first time the question has arisen. What we have now is an opportunity to get clarification from the one agency that can give it, the FOI Commission. It’s a win-win, regardless of the state commission’s final decision, because we all will get that answer.

      I’m not sure I grasp the other point you are trying to make here, Dave. Instructions went to committee members to carry on their work in these smaller teams through the summer. Yet a result of advice—from whom, I honestly do not know, I would imagine perhaps the town attorney, legal counsel at the FOI Commission or another lawyer—that those meetings (or interviews or site visits or “fact-finding missions” or whatever we want to call them) should have been publicly noticed, they’re now doing this work individually because that way they need not be noticed. Far as I can tell, that’s what is happening. With that said, I believe each reader should be able to make up his or her mind, so I have embedded the audio from the relevant part of the meeting at the top of the story.

  4. While the’re at it, what about the parking area at the schoolhouse Apts.
    An aerial view of the Schoolhouse along with the police dept. will show the difference of both parking areas. The police dept’s. was redone but not the Schoolhouse. Instead of installing artificial turf
    at the H.S. the money could be spent on installing a new parking area at the Schoolhouse Apt’s. I don’t know why it wasn’t done at the same time.
    NJ

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