One of New Canaan’s highest elected officials this week bemoaned what the town is spending in legal fees related to a Freedom of Information request.
The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday approved payment of an $11,527.91 bill from a Hartford-based law firm that’s advising a panel of residents who met throughout the past year to make recommendations to the town’s major governing document.
“What a monumental waste,” Selectman Nick Williams said of the payment during the group’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall.
New Canaan constituents on Election Day voted in favor of four of the five recommendations from the Charter Revision Commission, including what became a rather divisive question regarding the first selectman’s role on the Board of Finance. The volunteer group interviewed New Canaan leaders—both employees of the town and those who serve on municipal boards and commissions—in working toward its conclusions.
This summer, town resident Roger Williams formally requested to know who said what during those interviews. The commission, in turn, released a list of names of those interviewed along with notes from the sessions on what was said, though the comments were not attributed to the men and women who uttered them.
The matter swiftly escalated to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, and the Charter Revision members requested that the town hire Hartford-based Halloran & Sage, which has offices in Westport, to “represent” them (it’s not a lawsuit) in Hartford. The selectmen did so, though Nick Williams and First Selectman Rob Mallozzi voiced reservations.
They reiterated those reservations this week, noting that the total paid so far to Halloran & Sage is $14,250.41 and that the FOIA matter hasn’t been resolved.
Lawyers on both sides have prepared briefs, Mallozzi said, and a decision is expected this month. (Roger Williams told NewCanaanite.com during an interview after the meeting that his own legal bills total about $2,100.)
An itemized list of the most recent bill, dated Nov. 11, shows a $540 charge for “Travel to and attend public hearing.” Mallozzi said that New Canaan’s regular counsel in his five years running the town has never charged for travel.
Selectman Beth Jones said that the town already has decided not to cover any legal expenses related to the FOI matter once a decision comes down from the state agency. She added that it’s unclear how the cost would have been different had the town gone with the firm of its regular attorney.
“It could have been close,” she said.
Jones added: “You do not have a choice when someone brings an FOI [inquiry] like that. You’ve got to comply.”
Mallozzi and Nick Williams guessed that the final bill could run far higher than the current $14,000.
“It’s going to be $15,000,” Nick Williams said.
Mallozzi said: “I think it’s going to be higher than we imagined.”
He added: “The good news is this group that wanted legal advice is getting legal advice. It’s just that it is coming at a price.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a new figure of $15,000 attributed to Nick Williams in a direct quote. It sounded like $50,000 on a recording but has been corrected.