Councilors are not happy with secrecy over Ackley matter
New London - A number of city councilors expressed disappointment Thursday with a decision by the city's law director to keep private an agreement between the police chief and the city manager, saying the decision is not only bad policy but also allows unfounded rumors and gossip to run rampant.
Law director Thomas Londregan, in responding Wednesday to a state Freedom of Information request filed by The Day, declined to release a copy of a memo of understanding between police chief Margaret Ackley and City Manager Denise Rose.
Londregan, in denying The Day's request, characterized the memo of understanding as a preliminary draft because the City Council had not ratified it.
The Day maintains that the document is public information - similar to a school board creating a proposed budget that needs to be "ratified" by a finance board - and is filing an appeal with the state FOI Commission.
"I was not real happy with the law director's response," said Councilor John Russell, who said the decision means "speculation can run wild, and that's what it's done in this case."
Russell said the public is off target in its speculations.
"I don't like all the rumors swirling around about it," he said. "I haven't seen anything that's remotely on target for what's really going on."
"I think the document should be made public,'' Councilor Rob Pero said Thursday. "I think it's bad public policy (to withhold it). It should be a public document."
Councilor Michael Passero expressed frustration that the council was being criticized for the way it conducts business. The council met in executive session last week to discuss Ackley's employment and declined, on Londregan's advice, to release any details.
"It's unfair to say we are trying to govern behind closed doors,'' said Passero, who participated in the executive session by telephone. "No one is doing anything bad, as far as City Council membership, that I'm aware of."
The Day, in a second FOI request, had also asked for communications, including email, regarding Ackley's employment. Londregan replied that there were only two emails, both from Ackley's attorneys.
It appears that Ackley's attorneys alerted the city of her intent to sue. Londregan wrote that, "A fair interpretation of those letters indicates an intention by the Chief to assert a legal right and the intention to institute an action against the City if relief is not granted."
It was not clear what Ackley is seeking relief from. The Day is also appealing that decision and seeking the correspondence.
Mayor Martin Olsen took middle ground on the issue.
"On legal grounds, I agree with Mr. Londregan," Olsen said. "But I do have an element of frustration, as I think everybody in the city does. I think transparency … would help clear the air."
Councilor Wade Hyslop said he agrees with the decision to keep the matter private for now.
"Hopefully by next week we'll have a clearer understanding of which direction we're headed," Hyslop said. "I'm hoping that the chief, the city administration, as well as our attorney, have had an opportunity to sit down and talk together to resolve some of these things that seem to be possible issues."
Hyslop said he doesn't have "a clear understanding" of what those issues are, including any potential lawsuit.
Councilor Michael Buscetto III said the discussion among the city council centers on what the document actually is.
In the past week, councilors and Londregan have referred to it variously as a contract, an agreement, and now, a Memo of Understanding that should be considered a draft.
"That's what's being worked out now - what was signed?'' Buscetto said. He added the chief did not want the agreement to go public.
"If she wants to keep it confidential, I respect her wishes,'' he said. He added that he agreed to go into executive session last week because he did not know what the chief was going to say.
"Eventually, the chief is going to have let everyone know what her intentions are,'' Buscetto said. "That's when people will know what's going on."
Ackley did not respond to an email seeking comment Thursday; her attorney, Shelley Graves, could not be reached to comment Thursday.
Day Staff Writer Kathleen Edgecomb contributed to this report.