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    Friday, September 22, 2023

    Groton City leaders, two town councilors testify in dispute before FOI Commission

    Hartford - The Groton City mayor, deputy mayor and an attorney for the city faced two Groton town councilors Monday before a state Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer over a complaint filed by the councilors who said the city held an illegal meeting.

    Town Councilors Bruce Flax and Harry Watson filed the complaint with the commission on April 1, after city councilors walked out of a scheduled joint meeting with the town on March 30 to discuss highway funding. Flax said the city councilors left the joint meeting, stepped into a conference room in the Town Hall annex and closed the door. The city mayor was upset after she saw an attorney for the town in the audience, Flax said.

    "To me it goes way beyond parking lot discussion," Watson told hearing officer Mary E. Schwind. "It was a deliberate, all get up, go into another room and close the door."

    But John Casey, the attorney representing the city at the hearing, said no substantive business was conducted in the conference room, no votes were taken and public officials are not prohibited from communicating with each other.

    The hearing officer did not make a decision Monday, but will issue a report with suggested findings of fact and conclusions of law. The full FOI Commission will then hold a hearing and may accept, reject or amend the report.

    City Mayor Marian Galbraith said she arrived at the March 30 meeting to find attorney Matthew Auger in the audience, who had represented the town in an earlier dispute over city highway funding. She said the city didn't have its attorney there, and she conferred with city councilors about whether they wanted to continue with the meeting. They said no, she said.

    The group then left the meeting, but it was raining outside so they came back in, Galbraith said. At one point, town Councilor Bob Frink poked his head out of the council chamber and asked if the city council could provide another meeting date.

    Galbraith said the group went into the conference room to talk about another date, a city councilor asked about the agenda for the city council's next meeting and she asked whether attorney Casey should attend. 

    Deputy Mayor Keith Hedrick gave similar testimony. He said he felt "blindsided" by seeing an attorney for the town in the audience so he "was complaining a little about the meeting" and it was raining so they went inside.

    Watson said it's a simple issue: The group met and didn't give the public notice. "I don't care how upset somebody is. The public has the right to know when there's a quorum of a group," he said. He and Flax also said the city spent taxpayer money by using an attorney to defend itself, after the town councilors offered to call off the hearing if the mayor would admit the meeting was illegal.

    Galbraith said the meeting wasn't illegal, and the city offered to have a mediator hear the complaint but the town councilors refused. Since the complaint was against the city council and the city, and not her individually, using an attorney was appropriate, she said.

    Facts are what's relevant, Galbraith said.

    Flax said the goal is transparency in government.

    Watson agreed. "The public has a right to know whether its elected officials are meeting or not," he said. "Even if we lose, this might make public (officials) think a little bit more."


    Twitter: @DStraszheim

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