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Town led astray on freedom of information

Before Connecticut passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1975 many town and state officials routinely deliberated behind closed doors, without the public or media as witnesses to hold them accountable and keep them honest.

Since that landmark legislation, most authorities have complied with so-called "sunshine" laws, but every so often somebody tries to get away with a secret action, forcing a private citizen or reporter to file a complaint with the FOI Commission.

Here in southeastern Connecticut, the town of Stonington has in the past few years faced more than its share of complaints over issues as prosaic as labor disputes or as salacious as a lewd photograph allegedly sent online by the first selectman to a Pawcatuck woman.

The most recent infraction took place last February, when the FOI panel ruled Stonington violated state law by refusing to release union grievances filed by Zoning Enforcement Officer Joe Larkin.

Fed up with repeated violations, the state commission ordered town officials to undergo training in the requirements of the freedom of information law - and also encouraged "in the strongest possible terms" that town labor attorney Michael Satti participate.

The commission had been particularly critical of Satti's handling of the case, in which he had advised the town not to release the grievances after The Day had requested them.

This week FOI public education officer Tom Hennick led a two-hour training session at the police station for a dozen town employees and officials, including First Selectman Ed Haberek, Police Chief J. Darren Stewart, Acting Director of Planning Keith Brynes and Public Works Director Joe Bragaw - all of whom had been directly involved in one way or another in town-related FOI cases.

Mr. Haberek called the meeting very informative and expressed confidence it would help the town better comply with the state law.

Notably absent: Attorney Satti.

We're not sure why Mr. Satti did not attend, even though the meeting had been scheduled seven weeks earlier - he could not be reached for comment - but his absence was disappointing, to say the least.

After all it was Mr. Satti's advice on the union grievance issue that had been ruled illegal by the FOI commission. In addition, two months earlier the commission had ordered the town to ignore Mr. Satti's advice and release documents concerning the discipline of a highway department employee accused of threatening a fellow employee.

Mr. Satti had been paid $7,500 for his advice on those matters.

Perhaps it was better that Mr. Satti skipped the training session, since in all likelihood he would have submitted another hefty bill to the town.

Mr. Haberek noted that he could not order Mr. Satti to attend the meeting, since he is a contractor rather than a town employee, but we urge the first selectman to consider the issue the next time the legal counsel contract comes up for review.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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