Battle over Meriden council’s closed-door talks heads to state Supreme Court

Battle over Meriden council’s closed-door talks heads to state Supreme Court

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MERIDEN — The state Supreme Court will decide a legal battle over whether city leaders violated open meeting laws by holding a closed-door discussion to form a city manager search committee in 2016.

The Supreme Court has approved an application filed by the state Freedom of Information Commission to appeal an appellate court ruling that the January 2016 gathering did not violate open meeting laws.

The case stems from a complaint the Record-Journal filed with the FOIC to protest the 2016 private discussion, which resulted in a detailed resolution outlining the process for hiring a new city manager, including specific members of a search panel. The council subsequently approved the resolution at its following meeting without discussion.

Council caucus leaders, the city manager and mayor routinely hold such closed-door discussions prior to regular council meetings.

In November 2016, the Freedom of Information Commission issued a decision that the January gathering — which included six councilors, Mayor Kevin Scarpati, and then-City Manager Larry Kendzior — constituted a "proceeding," and therefore a "meeting" subject to open meeting requirements. 

The city unsuccessfully appealed the decision in New Britain Superior Court before appealing to the state Appellate Court, which overturned the FOIC’s decision in August. 

The FOIC subsequently filed a “petition for certification,” which is essentially an application asking the Supreme Court for an opportunity to appeal the appellate court’s ruling, said Susan Reeve, deputy chief clerk for the state Supreme Court. 

The Record-Journal has joined the FOIC’s petition.

The vast majority of petitions filed to the court do not receive certification, Reeves said. The court granted certification for 16.6 percent of petitions considered in the last court year, which ran from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, according to court records. 

The FOIC has 45 days to submit a brief, after which the city then has 30 days to submit an opposing brief. When the court grants certification, it either allows the appellant to argue all the points mentioned in its petition in its brief, or narrows what the appellant can argue to one or two issues.

The court in its order granting certification on Oct. 15 instructed the FOIC to limit its argument to the issue of whether the appellate court “properly construed the term ‘proceeding’ contained in General Statutes § 1-200 (2), not to include a gathering of four political leaders of the Meriden City Council at which they discussed a search for a new city manager?" 

While the FOIC concluded 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," relying on Ballentine's Law Dictionary since the FOI statute doesn't define the two terms.

The city in its appeal argued the gathering shouldn’t be considered a meeting because the number of councilors in attendance didn’t constitute a quorum, or seven of the 12 councilors. Councilors in attendance along with the mayor and then city manager were Brian Daniels, David Lowell, Dan Brunet, Walter Shamock, Cathy Battista and Michael Cardona.  

The city has characterized the January 2016 gathering as one of the council’s “leadership meetings” in which the city manager, mayor, and council caucus leaders meet behind closed doors to discuss issues going on in the city and determine whether a resolution needs to be drafted to address them. 

The city has continued to hold the leadership meetings as the case remains pending, meaning the Supreme Court decision could have implications on how leaders handle city business going forward. 

Councilors began holding leadership meetings a few years back, and some have argued they have helped build and facilitate bipartisan communication and relations. 

If the Supreme Court upholds the appellate court ruling, FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy has previously said she fears it will “create 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.”

Murphy this week said the FOIC is “very pleased the court granted it the petition for certification” and is “hopeful that the court will provide some clarity and guidance as to whether the type of substantive agency deliberations and decisions that occurred in this case, albeit by less than a quorum of agency members, must be open to the public.”

Meriden’s Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said this week “the city is confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court’s decision.”

The court won’t begin reviewing the case until both parties have submitted briefs, which Reeve said probably will take at least until around March 2020.
Twitter: @MatthewZabierek

Supreme Court Certification Order by Matt Zabierek on Scribd

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