Town of New Canaan Broke FOI Law by Withholding Draft P&Z Document, State Official Says

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The town of New Canaan failed to comply with state sunshine law when it took more than two months to deliver a public document to a resident who had asked for it, officials said.

According to an attorney with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, “there is no reason why” the town should’ve taken until Nov. 7 to hand over a 15-page document that the Planning & Zoning Commission had discussed at a public meeting on Aug. 29. The document, revised extensively at that August meeting, spelled out in a draft the conditions of approval that P&Z was considering for Grace Farms’s application for an amended permit.

New Canaan resident David Markatos on Sept. 5 had requested the draft conditions and, one week later, filed a complaint with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission when the town planner did not provide him with it in what he deemed a timely fashion.

Following hearings before the FOI Commission in Hartford, counsel Valicia Dee Harmon concluded that the town and town planner “violated the promptness provisions of the FOI Act, as alleged in the complaint.”

“Henceforth, the respondents shall strictly comply with the promptness provisions of the FOI Act,” Harmon wrote in her May 21 recommendation.

The full FOI Commission is scheduled to consider the matter at its June 27 meeting.

In issuing her recommendation, Harmon cited state FOI law that says “every person shall have the right to” inspect public records “promptly.”

“The Commission has previously opined that the word ‘promptly’ in [the Connecticut General Statutes] means ‘quickly and without undue delay, taking into account all of the factors presented by a particular request … [including] the volume of statements requested; the amount of personnel time necessary to comply with the request; the time by which the requester needs the information contained in the statements; the time constraints under which the agency must complete its other work; the importance of the records to the requester, if ascertainable; and the importance to the public of completing the other agency business without loss of the personnel time involved in complying with the request.’ … The Commission also recommended … that, if immediate compliance is not possible, the agency should explain the circumstances to the requester.”

Town officials chose to retain Town Attorney Ira Bloom to represent the municipality in the FOI matter. Recently, documents show, Bloom has been paid $220 hourly for similar work.

Interim Town Planner Keisha Fink told members of P&Z about the Harmon’s recommendation during the Commission’s regular meeting Tuesday.

P&Z Chairman John Goodwin said: “I will note that it continues to use up a fair amount of time and every time that we have to we send the town attorney to Hartford, we run up a significant legal bill.”

Fink began to say, “And I am an office of one, so when I’m not there—”

“—Exactly,” Goodwin said.

Commissioner Bill Redman said: “It would appear some are trying to create some noise.”

Goodwin replied, “At the expense of the town.”

In the past, New Canaan’s appointed and elected bodies long have held to a practice where they reserve the right to keep from handing over to the press or public a document that they describe as a “draft,” even after discussing it at a public meeting.

Markatos, a neighbor of Grace Farms, is named as a party in the Lukes Wood Road organization’s active lawsuit, according to Connecticut Judicial Branch records, regarding the conditions that P&Z unanimously approved at its September meeting. The status of that approval is now in question, as attorneys on behalf of a different neighbor has filed for a temporary injunction seeking to undo P&Z’s September decision and effectively return Grace Farms to the terms of its prior, 2013, special permit.

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