MERIDEN — The City Council voted to appeal the Freedom of Information Commission’s ruling last week that a leadership meeting surrounding the search for a new city manager earlier this year violated open meeting requirements.
Councilors voted after discussing the matter in a closed-door executive session Monday night, with some expressing hope that an appeal would at least bring clarity to how the council should conduct itself moving forward.
The ruling stems from a complaint filed by the Record-Journal after six city councilors had a private discussion in January with the mayor and city manager regarding the process of finding a new city manager.
The discussions went beyond just agenda setting, said FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy.
“I think the facts were such that the matter did not appear to be just an agenda setting process, which would be exempt from the meeting requirements of the law... There was a resolution that had been drafted and it was a multi-pronged resolution, including the names of who would serve on a search committee, so it seemed like a decision had been made at that gathering,” Murphy said. “The ability to decide matters in a closed setting could lead to some bad results where important decisions are made outside the purview of the public.”
City Attorney Deborah Moore argued the leadership discussion was not subject to open meeting requirements because the number of councilors present did not constitute a quorum.
The FOIC ultimately ruled the leadership discussion was “a proceeding of a public agency,” therefore requiring public notification. The commission directed the city to strictly comply with open meeting rules moving forward, advising the city that leadership groups, which meet regularly prior to the full City Council, could be considered a committee of the council.
City Manager Guy Scaife called the move to appeal “logical.”
“There’s no good clarity on what can and cannot be done, so at the minimum there needs to be better clarity,” Scaife said. “The arguments the city has are still valid.”
Democratic Majority Leader Brian Daniels previously said the decision would inhibit the council’s ability to have bipartisan discussions, questioning if hallway conversations could be considered in violation.
Murphy said such unplanned gatherings are exempt.
Deputy Mayor Democrat Michael Cardona said many questions came up during executive session.
“Part of the discussion was getting clarity on what exactly the decision was and its impact on the council — because based on our discussions there seemed to be a lack of clarity on how the FOI decision impacted the parameters of what can or can’t be done,” Cardona said.
Democratic Councilor Miguel Castro also voted to appeal to the decision.
“The decision that was delivered has no substance,” Castro said. “This is a practice that has shown no violations and hasn’t broken any rules or regulations so for anyone to render a decision as such is a negative message to the function of our leadership... Wonderful things have happened and discussions have taken place through leadership that have come back to a full discussion in our respective caucuses and I think that is the way it should continue to be.”
Democratic Councilor Sonya Jelks was the sole dissenting vote, saying while she agreed the council should be able to hold leadership meetings, she did not think the appeal would be worth the effort, suggesting the city look into how other local governments conduct bipartisan meetings.
“I think it’s a waste of time,” Jelks said. “I think there was some merit in what they were concerned about. I think we need to look at how other municipalities handle this situation.”