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Stonington meeting may have skirted FOI rules

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published December 08. 2012 4:00AM
Selectmen met Monday in emergency session to accept Crescent plans

Stonington - Just a few months after undergoing state-mandated training in Freedom of Information law, it appears town officials have again violated its provisions.

On Monday afternoon, the Board of Selectmen held an emergency meeting so it could accept open space plans for the controversial Crescent Club condominium project on Mary Hall Road in Pawcatuck.

After the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the project last year, opponents appealed to Superior Court. As part of the court approved settlement, Cherenzia Excavation of Pawcatuck had to have the town accept its open space plans and file them in Town Hall within 90 days, which was Monday. If the developers failed to do so, they would be in violation of the settlement.

But the state Freedom of Information law only permits emergency meetings in extraordinary circumstances, mostly involving "life and death" and serious public safety issues, according to FOI Public Education Officer Tom Hennick.

When given an overview of the selectmen's actions, Hennick said Friday, their reason for the emergency session did not rise to the level of an emergency in his mind.

A review of past FOI Commission rulings shows that towns have been cited for conducting illegal emergency meetings on topics far more serious than the need to file plans on time.

In 2006, for example, the Ridgefield Board of Selectmen held an emergency meeting the morning after an assistant fire chief allegedly threatened to kill the first selectmen because he was upset about being passed over for the chief's job. At that meeting, which the public was not aware of, the selectmen accepted the assistants chief's retirement after he rejected their offer of resignation or unpaid leave. He then complained to the Freedom of Information Commission that the selectmen held an illegal emergency meeting.

The commission agreed, saying that taking action over the threat was not a valid reason for an emergency meeting and voided the selectmen's action, saying it held an illegal meeting without public notice. In 2009, the state Supreme Court upheld the commission's ruling.

The FOI law sets a high standard for emergency meetings because a notice does not have to be posted in advance, meaning the public is unaware the meeting is occurring.

Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek said Friday that he asked Town Attorney Tom Londregan for a ruling before the meeting and was told an emergency session could take place.

Londregan said Friday that he does not agree that it has to be a life-or-death situation to hold an emergency session. He said that if the plans were not approved and filed that day, it would have cost both the town and developer time and money to return to court and possibly go through the application process again.

"It made a lot of sense," he said of holding the emergency meeting.

Londregan called the issue an "insignificant matter of municipal government" and said the selectmen where just accepting something that already had been agreed to by the parties and approved by the court. He said the selectmen did not have the ability to make any changes and were not voting to spend any money.

He said that if the town had one more day, it would have had time to post notice of a special meeting on the issue.

When the Freedom of Information Commission ruled in February that the town violated state law last year by refusing to release zoning enforcement officer Joe Larkin's union grievances, it ordered town officials to undergo training in the requirements of the law.

That decision came just two months after the commission had ruled that the town again violated the law when it refused to release documents concerning the discipline of highway department employee Ernie Santos, who was accused of threatening a fellow employee. In both cases, the town acted on the advice of its labor attorney, Michael Satti. The Day filed Freedom of Information complaints against the town in both cases.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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