MERIDEN — The city is attempting a second appeal of a Freedom of Information Commission ruling finding that city leaders violated open meeting laws during the 2016 search for a new city manager.
A state Superior Court judge upheld the FOIC decision in January.
“It’s simply to exercise our right of appeal on a decision we disagree with,” Majority Leader David Lowell said at a council meeting last week.
The city’s legal department will be handling the appeal internally at no additional cost to the city. The appeal brings the matter to the state Appellate Court.
The FOIC’s decision stems from a Record-Journal complaint over a January 2016 leadership meeting where six councilors, former city manager Lawrence Kendzior and Mayor Kevin Scarpati met privately without public notice to discuss the process of hiring a new city manager, producing a resolution with a list of names for appointment to a search committee and discussing appropriate applicants. The city argued the meeting did not need to be announced or open to the public because six councilors do not constitute a quorum of the full city council, citing a 1999 Appellate Court case, Windham vs. FOIC.
The FOIC ruled the meeting violated state law because the bipartisan leadership group essentially functioned as a committee of the full City Council. State law defines a meeting as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multi-member public agency, and any communication by or to a quorum of a multi-member public agency, whether in person or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.”
State law allows limited private communication between officials to discuss agendas and notice of meetings. The FOIC ruling said council leadership went beyond agenda setting and ordered the city to strictly comply with open meeting rules moving forward, advising the city that leadership groups, which regularly meet prior to City Council meetings, could be considered a violation.
Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said decisions made by leadership are not binding as all resolutions crafted go before the full City Council. The ruling means leadership meetings would need to be noticed and open to the public like other subcommittee meetings.
“I think it’s going to hamper the leadership’s ability to have bipartisan discussions on items to come before the council,” Quinn said. “If leadership meetings are found to be completely improper, it’s going to create a situation where now you’ve got the caucuses drafting resolutions and putting them before the council and that’s not going to be done in a bipartisan way.”
Quinn also noted “factual errors” in the appeal’s dismissal, noting the judge’s determination indicated leadership “picked the city manager.” That is untrue, Quinn said, as the meeting occurred early in the selection process.
Greater clarity is needed on how leadership can conduct city business moving forward, Quinn said.