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Bill to let opposite party leaders meet secretly won't get a vote

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published April 10. 2013 4:00AM   Updated April 11. 2013 12:03AM

Hartford - A bill that would have allowed leaders of different political parties working on proposed legislation to meet secretly will die in the Senate.

The bill was voted out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee on Friday and is currently at the Legislative Commissioners' Office, where some final details are being worked out. But while the bill will go to the floor of the Senate next, it will not be voted on, state Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, said Tuesday.

"I talked to leadership, and based on testimony and questions after the testimony and other stuff (we are) working on, it is probably not a good time," Musto said.

The bill drew substantial negative testimony when it went to a public hearing last month.

Adam Joseph, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said that while the Senate Democrats initiated the bill, it wasn't a priority for them so it is not expected to be taken up in a Senate vote.

The issue was brought to the Senate Democrats' attention because of a Freedom of Information complaint against The Stamford Board of Representatives, he said. On Sept. 15, 2011, the complainant, Salvatore Gabriele, a former Board of Finance member, alleged that the majority and minority leadership members of the Board of Representatives violated the open meetings provision of the Freedom of Information Act by "communicating by email and telephone" on city business.

The FOI complaint was ultimately dismissed because it was not filed in time, so there weren't any final findings on whether public meetings laws had been broken, said Colleen Murphy, executive director and general council for the Office of Government Accountability Freedom of Information Commission.

After this case, state legislators were concerned about whether legislative committees could hold bipartisan screening sessions, Joseph said. Currently, some committees do hold bipartisan screening sessions while others don't, he said. A screening session gives committee chairmen from the majority party and ranking members from the minority party the opportunity to discuss which bills or topics are coming up before they are actually brought up, Joseph said.

Under Connecticut's FOI Act, a "meeting" means any hearing or other procedure of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multimember public agency, and any communication by or to a quorum of a multimember public agency … to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power."

Some examples of meetings that are excluded from the law include a personnel search committee for executive level candidates, negotiations with respect to collective bargaining and single-party caucus meetings.

Senate Bill 1148 proposed also excluding "negotiations between members of different political parties who are in a leadership position, with respect to proposed legislation or proposed action of the public agency to which such members belong, notwithstanding that such members also constitute a quorum of a public agency."

Murphy said the bill was written so broadly that the fear was that an entire agency by designating each of its members as leaders could meet behind closed doors. The meeting wouldn't be publicly posted, and there wouldn't be public access to the meeting agenda or minutes, said James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

Smith said he didn't know why legislators would even try to create this law.

"They (legislative leaders) have the ability to lead, develop and strategize outside of FOI," Smith said.

Under current law, they can hold a secret meeting if they don't make up the majority or a quorum, he said.

Murphy said she didn't know whether legislative leaders, who recently met behind closed doors to create gun control legislation, would have been breaking FOI law.

"You heard leadership say, 'we have a deal,' on the other hand there is still public debate on it," Murphy said.

The FOI Commission is more concerned about instances where the public is taken out of the public meeting viewing completely, she said.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, said the Government Administration and Elections Committee raised the bill because the Stamford case called into question whether it was acceptable for legislators from different parties to interact and manage the flow of business as they currently do.

But the fact that the committee voted the bill out of committee doesn't mean anything is "concrete," he said.

As currently written, the bill would apply to the whole legislature, a committee in the legislature or a local board or town council, he said.

"The point is that if they don't have some flexibility to meet outside of a public forum, then it could have the effect of stymieing the body or almost crippling the body to take action," Jutila said.

When asked whether it would be a big change for local leaders to be able to meet with other local leaders from opposite parties, Jutila said, "It's a fair question, and that is why I keep reiterating that this bill is a … work in progress."

Murphy said she was happy the bill wouldn't go further but that she would keep her eye on it anyway.

"Sometimes those things have a way of creeping into some other bill, even though they are not going to take up this bill," Murphy said.

j.somers@theday.com

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