Stonington settles FOI complaint filed by The Day

Stonington — Just hours before a hearing was slated to take place Tuesday afternoon in Hartford, the town agreed to settle a Freedom of Information Act complaint filed by The Day that alleged the Board of Selectmen held an illegal executive session and posted an illegal agenda for its April 26 meeting.

Town Attorney Brian Estep said Tuesday that in a signed statement First Selectman Rob Simmons will acknowledge “that the notice of executive session on the agenda for the meeting of April 26, 2017 and the subsequent executive session were improper pursuant to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.”

In addition Estep said Simmons has “requested assistance from the Freedom of Information Commission’s Public Education Officer, Thomas A. Hennick, to provide a training update session for Stonington officials as appropriate.”

Based on the town’s offer, The Day withdrew its complaint and the hearing was cancelled.

The agenda item and executive session in question involved a draft of a consultant’s report that analyzed the operations of town departments and made 56 recommendations for improvement. The town, which paid $15,000 for the report and voted April 26 to release the final report, has refused to release the draft to The Day and maintains it is exempt from state Freedom of Information law “because the Town believes the public interest in withholding the draft at this point in time clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

The Day has filed a separate appeal seeking the draft with the Freedom of Information Commission stating there is no overriding public interest in keeping the draft secret and that it is in the public interest for residents to see the consultants' unedited view of how the town operates. A decision is pending.

At the commission’s hearing on the appeal last month, Simmons acknowledged there were no substantive changes between the draft and final report that was issued except for grammatical, spelling and phrasing revisions. He added that the town also had concerns about the impact the report could have on a lawsuit filed against the town by fired Highway Supervisor Lou DiCesare.

At the April 26 meeting, which was the subject of Tuesday’s settlement, Selectman Mike Spellman and Selectwoman Kate Rotella refused to second Simmons’s motion to go into executive session to discuss the report.

Simmons then called a recess, and he, Spellman and Rotella huddled in the corner of the police station community room with town labor attorney Meredith Diette. The Day charged that the recess was an illegal executive session to discuss the impasse in secret.

Five minutes later, they came back into session and voted to go into executive session after Diette clarified that the details of the report could affect pending litigation against the town.

State Freedom of Information law requires boards voting to go into executive session to discuss pending litigation to name the lawsuit. When asked what suit the board would be discussing, Diette refused to comment. The revised reason for the executive session was not listed on the agenda for the meeting, which also is required under FOI law.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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