The town hasn’t issued an RFP for legal services in a full decade, officials told NewCanaanite.com in response to a public information request.
New Canaan issued for legal services in May 2012, according to Mimi Pitt, the project coordinator for the town who fields requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. The last time RFPs were issued for internal and external auditing services were June 2016 and March 2012, respectively, Pitt said.
The three RFP issuances all date to the administration of former First Selectman Rob Mallozzi. The current first selectman, Kevin Moynihan, was elected in 2017.
The information from Pitt came following publication of a NewCanaanite.com article that Moynihan challenged during the Aug. 9 Board of Selectmen meeting. There, Moynihan said the article, about how the town exceeded its legal budget during fiscal year 2022 by 32%, had “many inaccuracies” and that he would “send a letter” seeking a retraction. Moynihan also said the article lacked context, claiming he had reduced the annual legal budget since Mallozzi’s administration.
It isn’t clear what Moynihan referred to by inaccuracies (this news outlet has received no letter).
During the meeting, he said, “The town attorney, who is on vacation, sent an email after reading the article, there are several things that Michael [Dinan] is simply wrong about and he [the town attorney] is happy to have a discussion to discuss the Markatos case in particular.” The selectmen could have a meeting in executive session with Town Attorney Ira Bloom to discuss the Markatos case, Moynihan said.
He referred to a complaint brought against the town by New Canaan resident David Markatos. In June 2021, Markatos had requested communications from several officials of the town and Grace Farms relating to the Lukes Wood Road organization.
The Freedom of Information Commission attorney assigned to the case, Danielle McGee, wrote in a May 24 proposed final decision that the town and its attorneys failed in multiple ways. During the hearing, the town’s lawyers tried to argue that Markatos could not make the claim that certain records were improperly withheld because his original complaint was only that the town was not prompt in meeting his request for records.
McGee wrote, “With respect to the respondents’ contention that the complaint is limited to the issue of promptness, the complaint clearly alleges that the respondents violated the FOI Act by failing to comply with the complainant’s June 7, 2021 request for copies of all responsive records which, at the time of the hearing, remained in contention. The complaint, on its face, is not limited to the issue of promptness, as argued by the respondents.”
Moreover, the town tried to argue that some of its communications had been withheld from Markatos because “the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure,” an exemption spelled out under the FOI law. Yet the town’s attorneys also failed to make that case, McGee noted.
She wrote, “Accordingly, it is concluded that the respondents violated the FOI Act by withholding such records from the complainant.”
In the end, Markatos did obtain the previously withheld records from the town.
As noted in the article in question, the town spent $395,947.42 in legal fees against a budget of $300,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
During the Aug. 23 Board of Selectmen meeting, Moynihan during a section dedicated to general matters before the town, said, “I would note for those watching the meeting that our legal fee budget for this year is $250,000, down from last year.” He added, “Although that may be debatable given our ongoing 8-30 litigations.”
It isn’t clear what prompted Moynihan to reduce the legal budget.
Selectman Kathleen Corbet has asked in the past about the monthly retainer that New Canaan pays to Berchem Moses PC, the town attorney’s firm (it stands at $8,500 now, up from $8,000). In response to a question about whether New Canaan’s costs are in line with other towns, Moynihan said, “I don’t know exactly what other towns pay but I’m told by Ira that we are in the ballpark. Maybe a bit higher.”
During the Aug. 23 meeting, Corbet asked again at what point, given New Canaan’s legal fees, would it make sense to “consider a review of having an in-house attorney.”
Moynihan said it would be difficult to get one attorney who specialized in several areas, such as employment law, and that outside services still would be required. He said that towns such as New Canaan never hire in-house attorneys, and that Greenwich, which has one, is essentially a city itself.
Selectman Nick Williams said, “Unless you have the right person at the right time, but I don’t know if it’s worthy of implementing a whole new position of in-house counsel.”