On one level it’s titillating: six city lawyers show up to face off against one lone retired judge, Carmen Lopez, at a City Council budget committee meeting last May. On another level, when Lopez shows up armed with mountain ranges of legal skills, they call out the cavalry. Perhaps the show of force provides an inference that something’s gone awry–such as a call to rescue the City Attorney’s Office budget on the chopping block–under the guise of something else.
Here’s what we know for sure, the state Freedom of Information Commission ruled last week that city lawyers directed an illegal executive session of the City Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee whose members have been ordered to a training session on the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act following a May meeting that was challenged by Lopez after the public was shut out.
Used to be, back in the day unsophisticated council members received a pass for being led astray by manipulative lawyers, but now the council features members with degrees from Princeton and Harvard and Yale–albeit not legal degrees, but still Ivy League. Yet they still don’t push back on the lawyers. Thus … “I Make A Motion To Go Into Executive Session For Whatever He Said.”
Judge Lopez files her latest commentary on the legal machinations.
“Delay, Deny and Deflect,” announced the November 14, 2018, New York Times front page headline.
When I read it, I immediately thought that the NYTIMES was referring to Mayor Ganim’s City Attorneys.
You really can’t blame me for thinking that; after all, Mayor Ganim’s City Attorneys were on my mind that morning.
On that day, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) in Hartford would be issuing final orders on an appeal of a Budget and Appropriations Committee (BAC) decision to convene an illegal Executive Session on May 2, 2018, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
For one tiny moment, I thought that an act of divine intervention had just taken place and even the NYTIMES was moved to ‘afflict the comfortable’ in the memorable words of H.L. Mencken.
As it turns out, the story was not about Mayor Ganim’s corporation counsel, but rather it was about another virtuous icon of selfless service to the greater good, Facebook.
What a story that was; but that is for another day.
As both Lennie Grimaldi, the host of the Only in Bridgeport blog and the Connecticut Post have reported, on October 3, 2018, the FOIC announced that Hearing Officer Attorney Tracie Brown, following an evidentiary hearing regarding the BAC meeting, had issued a report to the FOIC. In her report, the Hearing Officer found that, in fact, the BAC of the City Council had convened an illegal Executive Session in violation of multiple sections the FOIA. The Hearing Officer also entered findings regarding the presence of the majority of the City Attorneys at this illegally convened Executive Session. The Hearing Officer found that,
“The presence and participation by so many city officials supports an inference that the discussion was not confined merely to legal strategy and negations of the City attorney’s office, but was instead a broad substantive discussion concerning the City Attorney’s Office’s budget, if not the City’s budget as a whole, involving a majority of the board of the City Council and administration officials.”
As a remedy for the egregious violations, the Hearing Officer recommended that the FOIC should enter three orders directed to the BAC.
In a nutshell, the BAC committee was ordered to “henceforth strictly comply” with the FOIA, to immediately prepare detailed minutes of the discussions held in the illegally convened Executive Session and make them available to the public, and, finally “within 30 days of the date of the Final Decision,” to contact the FOIC to schedule a training session for all members of the Committee which “all attorneys of the City of Bridgeport’s City Attorney’s Office are strongly encouraged to attend.”
Attorney Michael Jankovsky represented the City at this hearing. He objected to two of the proposed orders.
First, he informed the Commission that the Committee is having a difficult time creating minutes of the illegal Executive Session because people have to rely on their memory of the events, and most people don’t remember. In addition, the Committee only meets monthly and there is insufficient time. He requested an additional 90 days to create minutes. (Delay)
On Wednesday, over the complainants’ objections, the Commission voted to give the City an extra 75 days to create the minutes and file them in the Office of the City Clerk.
Next, Attorney Jankovsky presented a nervy objection to the entry of any order requiring either the committee or the attorneys to attend any legal training whatsoever. He, argued, with a straight face, that the Committee did not intend to violate the law and that this is the way the City has always done business. (Deny)
In addition, Attorney Jankovsky insisted that now that the FOIC had ruled on the procedures to be followed at meetings of public agencies, the City will make sure to follow the ruling in the future. (Deflect)
Attorney Jankovsky did not offer an explanation as to why six City Attorneys who were present while the BAC convened an illegal Executive Session, remained mute in the face of such clear violations.
In light of that sad reality, the Commission overruled the objection and entered an order that the BAC must participate in a training, and “all attorneys of the City of Bridgeport’s City Attorney’s Office are strongly encouraged to attend.”
The complainant’s request to impose a civil penalty of $25.00 was overruled on the basis that there is no evidence that that the City officials have ever received training on the FOIA. The Commissioners emphasized that once the training is given, any further violations of the law will be not be tolerated and subject to a civil penalty.
Most of us in Bridgeport are ashamed that our officials govern city affairs in a manner so reckless and shocking that even the Hartford Courant ran a story on it.
If only Mayor Ganim and his City Attorneys felt ashamed, but they are shameless.
And we all know that you can’t shame the shameless!