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Hearing officer critical of Stonington's decision on releasing document

Stonington - A Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer has criticized the town for refusing to release a union grievance that Zoning Enforcement Officer Joe Larkin filed after his job was reduced from full to part time last summer.

The Day requested the grievance from the town and then filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission after the town refused to release it.

The commission is slated to make a formal decision Feb. 22 whether the town has to release the grievance. It also will consider a recommendation by hearing officer Victor Perpetua that town officials attend an educational training session on the requirements of freedom of information law led by a commission staff member. The Day requested the training because previous FOI decisions had found that such grievances are public documents and must be released.

Because the town's action was guided by the advice of town labor attorney Michael Satti, Perpetua wrote that the commission "encourages, in the strongest possible terms" that Satti participate in the educational session.

The town has paid Satti $2,304 so far for his advice and work on the case. That total does not include his bill for representing the town at the commission hearing two months ago.

If the commission rules for release of the document, this will be the second recent FOI case that the town has lost regarding documents requested by The Day. In December, the FOI commission ordered the town to release documents concerning the discipline of highway department employee Ernie Santos, who was accused of threatening a fellow employee.

The commission found the town failed to review the Santos documents first to determine whether releasing them would be a legal invasion of Santos' personal privacy. In that case, the commission said the town essentially let Santos, who could not say how the records would invade his privacy, make the decision not to release them.

The town paid Satti more than $5,200 to defend that case. That figure does not include an appearance by a lawyer in Satti's firm at the commission's final hearing on the matter and work on a brief he had filed.

As in the Santos case, the town has argued it will not release the grievance because Larkin has said it would violate his privacy. Doing so, it said, would put the town in legal jeopardy.

But Perpetua wrote that the town provided no evidence to prove that it reasonably believed that releasing the grievance would constitute a legal invasion of privacy and no evidence that releasing the grievance was an invasion of Larkin's privacy.

In his recommendation, Perpetua wrote that the commission "is disturbed" by the town soliciting and then using an employee objection as a reason to withhold the grievance when it had no reasonable belief that disclosure would legally constitute an invasion of privacy.

He also rejected the town's later claim that the grievance is exempt from disclosure because it is part of strategy and negotiations pertaining to collective bargaining.

Perpetua pointed out that the state Appellate Court has conclusively determined that a union grievance is not such a record. He said case law cited by Satti was not factually applicable to the issue.


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