MERIDEN — The city will offer training on Freedom of Information compliance to all city boards and commissions next month after the FOI Commission ruled the city’s School Readiness Council violated transparency laws for years.
The commission voted unanimously on Jan. 9 to adopt a hearing officer’s report that found the readiness council failed to post agendas and minutes for meetings, as required by law.
The ruling also required FOI training for the 15-member School Readiness Council, including council co-chairs Mayor Kevin Scarpati and School Superintendent Mark Benigni. The city manager decided to include other staff and officials.
City Manager Tim Coon said he has made the Feb. 6 sessions mandatory for all department heads and is strongly encouraging other city officials, board and commission members, and staff assigned to boards and commissions to attend.
“We’re trying to get everyone to go to it,” Coon said. “… so we can avoid problems in the future.”
The training, held at 2:30 and 6 p.m. on Feb. 6, will be run by Tom Hennick, public education officer for the Freedom of Information Commission, according to an email City Attorney Debbie Moore sent to other city officials.
The Record-Journal filed a complaint with the FOI Commission in July, contending the readiness council failed to follow public meeting requirements by not giving notice or producing minutes of a June 20 meeting.
The council voted at that meeting to cut $553,288 in funding for 62 daycare spaces at the Women and Families Center's School Readiness Program. The WFC ultimately laid off Director of Childcare Karen Yorker and 10 teachers at the facility.
In her report, hearing officer Valicia Dee Harmon determined the lack of notice or minutes by the School Readiness Council violated FOI laws. Harmon also determined, based on testimony from council staff, that the council, which formed in 1998, "has not been following the requirements of the FOI Act seemingly since 2014 (and perhaps even before 2014)."
The city's School Readiness Coordinator, Jennifer Baglin, testified at a hearing that she "was never informed that the School Readiness Council was required to comply with the FOI Act" since she was hired in 2014. It was not clear, based on testimony, whether the School Readiness Council or its staff complied with public meeting requirements at any point prior to Baglin’s hire.
Harmon wrote that while Baglin, the council's secretary, was not aware the body was subject to FOI requirements, other government officials that sit on the council should have known.
Aside from permanent positions for the mayor and superintendent, Harmon noted the council also includes City Councilor Cathy Battista, who represents the Family Resource Center.
"It is found that any one of these officials should have realized that the School Readiness Council was not in compliance with the state's FOI laws," Harmon wrote.
Scarpati said he plans to attend the required training next month. “I could not tell as to why (Baglin) was not made aware and why those things slipped through the cracks,” Scarpati said Tuesday. “I truly don’t have an answer for you … What came out of this was a lesson learned, and it will only help to make reporting of School Readiness Council matters that much more efficient.”
Baglin began posting agendas after the Record-Journal’s complaint, including for an an Aug. 20 meeting where the council repeated its discussion of the funding cuts to the daycare programs and took a second vote in public.
Scarpati believes the FOI training being opened to all city officials will be beneficial. “It’s a good thing for us to attend to have more knowledge on Freedom of Information issues,” he said.
CORRECTION: The date of the two scheduled FOI training sessions was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.