MERIDEN — The state Appellate Court recently reversed a lower court ruling that city leaders violated open meeting laws during the 2016 search for a new city manager.
In an Aug. 6 opinion, a three-judge panel ruled that a closed-door discussion in January 2016 among City Council leaders, the mayor and the retiring city manager, did not constitute a meeting under the state Freedom of Information Act, and thus, wasn’t subject to open meeting requirements.
The Freedom of Information Commission in November 2016 issued a decision that the gathering — which included four councilors, Mayor Kevin Scarpati, and former City Manager Larry Kendzior — constituted a “proceeding,” and therefore a “meeting” subject to open meeting requirements. The FOIC decision stemmed from a complaint filed by the Record-Journal earlier that year.
The city unsuccessfully appealed the FOIC’s decision to New Britain Superior Court before appealing to the state Appellate Court. The FOIC filed a petition last week to have the case heard by the state Supreme Court. The Record-Journal has joined the FOIC’s petition.
The Jan. 3, 2016 discussion resulted in a detailed resolution establishing the process for selecting the next city manager, including the names and duties of people to be appointed to a search committee. That resolution was subsequently passed at a council meeting on Jan 19, 2016, without discussion.
While the FOIC concluded that the gathering constituted a “proceeding,” and therefore a meeting, because it was a “step in the process of agency-member activity,” the Appellate Court applied a narrower legal definition of a “proceeding” or “hearing” as part of a process of adjudication, relying on Ballentine’s Law Dictionary since the FOI statute doesn’t define the two terms.
Michael Quinn, the city’s corporation counsel, said this week that the city is pleased with the Appellate Court’s decision. Quinn argued the 2016 leadership gathering didn’t constitute a meeting because it didn’t include a quorum, or at least seven of the council’s 12 members, and did not “result in any actions that bind the council.”
The council’s “recommended membership for the City Manager Search Committee was approved by the entire City Council in open session at a properly noticed meeting and the Appellate Court understood this distinction and ruled appropriately,” Quinn wrote in an email this week.
Since the 2016 meeting, the city has continued to hold regular closed-door leadership discussions every couple of weeks. The city manager, mayor, and the council majority and minority caucus leaders, discuss city business, including whether to draft a council resolution to address certain issues.
Despite the city’s contention that the 2016 gathering wasn’t a meeting because a quorum wasn’t present, the Appellate Court stated in its opinion that — under its interpretation of how FOIA statute defines a meeting — open meeting requirements apply to any hearing or proceeding “no matter the number of people attending.”
FOIA statute defines a meeting as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multi-member agency, and any communication by or to a quorum of a multi-member agency … to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.” Because the phrase, “hearing or other proceeding,” is separate from the phrase “convening or assembly of a quorum,” and the term “quorum” is not present in the phrase “hearing or other proceeding” the Appellate Court concluded that a quorum isn’t necessary for a proceeding or hearing to be considered a meeting.
The FOIC in its Supreme Court petition argues that the leadership group should be treated like every other subcommittee of the City Council and said it fears this decision would effectively exempt those other subcommittees from open meeting requirements.
The City Council has a number of subcommittees, each made up of five councilors, that meet to take up matters referred to them by the full City Council and vote to make non-binding recommendations on those matters. Those subcommittees are required to post agendas and minutes and comply with other open meeting requirements.
FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy said she’s concerned the Appellate Court’s decision creates “a path by which public agencies can essentially make all of their decisions outside of the public view, by simply conducting their meetings with just one member shy of a quorum.”
“The Commission is disappointed in the path taken by Appellate Court and feels that the issue presented is one that carries with it a very significant public interest,” Murphy said in an email.
The FOIC’s petition also challenged the Appellate Court’s decision to apply a legal dictionary’s definition of a “proceeding” because it “failed to recognize that the work of a majority of public agencies is not conducted in adjudicatory settings.”
“The Appellate Court so narrowly construed the term ‘proceeding’ that it no longer has practical application to how public agencies conduct their business,” the petition states.
Quinn said the city “will continue to vigorously advocate for our position as found valid by the Appellate Court if the higher court decides to take up this case.” The case is being handled in-house by City Attorney Stephanie Dellolio, Quinn said.