The simplest response to a recent Freedom of Information Commission ruling would be for the Meriden City Council to begin conducting leadership meetings publicly.
Instead, councilors plan to fight the ruling in Superior Court citing concerns that the decision’s interpretation of what constitutes a meeting is somehow confusing or unworkable. The majority leader says he’s worried he can no longer have a conversation with the minority leader in the hallway. But the law doesn’t prohibit chance meetings, nor does that scenario remotely describe the lengthy private debate which prompted a Record-Journal complaint. Other concerns expressed by officials, that without secret leadership meetings they couldn’t discuss sensitive information about personnel or legal strategy, ignore the separate exemptions in the law for those subjects.
What they really want is simply to continue gathering in secret before each City Council meeting to discuss whatever business comes before the council. To abide by the decision would disrupt a process council leaders may find beneficial for reasons that include allowing them to project a unified public front, compared to the often fractious exchanges under the previous mayor.
But the goal of decorum is no excuse for extinguishing debate or dissent regarding the people’s business outside the public sphere. To do so weakens public trust in government while enabling malfeasance. It also violates the plain language of FOI law, which defines a meeting as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency,” in addition to “any convening or assembly of a quorum.”
Councilors deliberately keep leadership meetings one member shy of a quorum, the number required to officially vote. The lack of a quorum is the basis of their contention that these are not meetings and therefore do not have to be public. The secret debate over the city manager search process, however, illustrates the wisdom of the statute in defining a meeting more broadly.
As with other leadership meetings, six of the 12 councilors met privately in January with the mayor and city manager to discuss a plan for hiring the manager’s successor. The resolution that emerged detailed a process involving staff, a professional panel, a search committee, the leadership group itself and the council as a whole. Specific members of the committee were named, both from the council and community. Officials admitted a lengthy discussion was needed to reach consensus on all this. The composition of the search committee is “where most of the debate centered,” the minority leader said afterward.
The public should have been privy to that debate. There should be a record of it. But in fact the process was never discussed publicly since the resolution was approved at the next regular council meeting as part of the consent agenda, items grouped together for action without discussion. This opaque process is standard procedure regarding a wide range of business before the council.
The public would be well served by a change in favor of greater transparency.
Reach Managing Editor Eric Cotton at 203-317-2344 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.