The meetings should be open, period

There have probably been council motions that made less sense than that proposed Monday by New London City Councilor John Maynard and seconded by his cohort, Marie Freiss-McSparran, but we can't recall any.

In his newly appointed role as chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, Mr. Maynard seemed determined in one meeting to end the needless quarreling that has stalemated the city's Police-Community Relations Committee. In so doing he offered up a convoluted motion that was logically flawed, legally suspect and would violate the separation of powers under the city's new mayoral governance.

After saying nothing and asking no questions throughout the two-hour-plus meeting, Ms. Freiss-McSparran voted in favor and sent the measure to the seven-member council on a 2-0 vote, the third committee member, Councilor Donald Macrino, being absent. Council President Michael Passero, who did attend, predicted it would get little council support. Let's hope not.

As controversies go, this one is about as needless as it gets. Among the primary jobs of the Police-Community Relations Committee is to review internal police investigations of citizen complaints alleging misconduct by officers. After police complete the investigation and the chief signs off, the committee reviews the report and makes a determination whether, in its opinion, the review was adequate. It is intended as a safeguard to make sure internal investigations are fair and thorough - in other words, not a whitewash.

When filed, a citizen complaint becomes public information, including the name of the complainant and the officers. An internal review then begins. Both the current and prior city attorneys have concluded, quite correctly, that the completed investigatory report, including its findings, is likewise a public record. The community relations committee discussion about the report must also be public, since no exemptions to the state's open-government law apply. For the past two years the committee has discussed the reports openly.

Unfortunately, the committee's history is different. For a couple of decades the committee, under the chairmanship of Wayne Vendetto, went into closed sessions, unchallenged, to discuss the reports. After a brief absence, Mr. Vendetto is back as chairman and trying to get the discussions back behind closed doors. Mr. Vendetto is fervent in his desire to protect the reputation of police officers, but his passion is misplaced and his interpretation of the Freedom of Information law wrong.

Fortunately, several new appointees to the committee accept the attorney's opinion and recognize the discussions should be open. They have denied the votes Mr. Vendetto needs to move into executive (closed) session. What should happen then is the meeting should continue, openly, but those who want closed discussions have essentially refused to accept the vote and move on, resulting in a stalemate and no business getting done.

Acting-Chief Peter Reichard recognizes why it best serves the department and public to have an open discussion of citizen-complaint reports. It demonstrates those complaints are thoroughly and professionally investigated. Conversely, closed-door discussions create public suspicion and tarnish the department's image.

What the council should be telling the community relations committee is to adhere to the attorney's opinion and get on with its work - openly.

But not Mr. Maynard, who wants it both ways. His motion calls for the chief to submit the report to the committee unsigned, framing it as a "draft report" or "pending investigation" exempt from public disclosure. But Mr. Maynard wants some openness, so his motion would further instruct the committee to discuss the report in public, but leave out the officers' names.

There is so much wrong with this proposal it is difficult to cover it all.

As acting-Chief Reichard points out, if the internal investigatory report is unsigned it is not final and so not open to anyone, including the committee. If somehow the report is classified as a draft - and we would argue that would be nothing but a ruse - then the committee could vote to go into executive session, Mr. Maynard's proposal not withstanding. Conversely, if it is a public record (it is), the council cannot circumvent the FOI law by instructing the committee to make an arbitrary exemption to the law - leave out the names.

Finally, the chief works for the mayor, not the council, and the council cannot get around mayoral authority by instructing the chief how he is to handle internal investigations and when he, or she, is supposed to sign off on reports.

We leave for another day a discussion whether the community relations committee should continue functioning in its current fashion - that is, only being able to state whether investigations were adequate or not and with no genuine authority - but as long as that is its role it should conduct business openly.

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