A state hearing officer has ruled 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 retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez after the public was shut out. City lawyers are “strongly urged to attend” the training session, according to the decision. The proposed findings will go before the full FOI Commission for a hearing and vote in November.
FOI Hearing Officer Tracie Brown has sided with Lopez who filed a complaint in May charging that a vote by the budget committee citing “pending litigation” for the basis of an executive session violated state law. Lopez asserted that the violations were at the direction of lawyers with the City Attorney’s Office. Brown agreed. Brown’s decision orders the city to “create minutes of the executive session … to include a detailed account of the discussions that took place, including the names of the cases discussed, and further, shall forthwith file such minutes with the town clerk and provide a copy, free of charge,” to Lopez.
Brown has ordered all members of the budget committee to attend a training session “on the provisions of the FOI Act governing executive sessions … All attorneys of the City of Bridgeport’s City Attorney’s Office are strongly encouraged to attend.”
“City lawyers were all there and no one knew the law,” said Lopez who has taken municipal attorneys to task the past year on several fronts. “Are you familiar with a can of Raid?” Lopez added rhetorically to OIB. “We need a can of Raid for the City Attorney’s Office.”
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“The fact that six city attorneys were present is why this is so flagrant,” said school board member Maria Pereira who also filed an FOI complaint based on her observations of the dubious meeting. “If six city attorneys don’t know the law than what is the expectation for any other appointed or elected body in the city?”
On May 2, according to the decision, budget committee members moved to go into executive session as the first order of business, including members Jeanette Herron, Denese Taylor-Moye and Christina Smith. Council President Aidee Nieves and council member Ernie Newton, who is not a member of the budget committee, also attended. Associate City Attorney Mark Anastasi was joined by five other municipal lawyers.
The executive session was convened as follows, according to a transcript of the meeting:
Council Member Herron: Okay, everybody out.
Council member Taylor-Moye: Uhm, everyone that’s not part of the Committee or the Council or the City Attorney’s Office, can you –
Council Member Herron: Motion
Council President Nieves: Make a motion.
Council Member Taylor-Moye – please leave, I need a motion.
Atty Anastasi: [inaudible] to discuss major pending litigation.
Council member Newton: That’s what he said –
Council member Smith: I make a motion to go into Executive Session for whatever he said.
Council member Herron: Second
Council Member Taylor-Moye: All in favor?
At that point council members and lawyers entered into executive session that was also attended by Finance Director Ken Flatto and Budget Director Nestor Nkwo. The session lasted for about an hour.
Lopez attended the early part of the meeting and had publicly challenged the veracity of an executive session. Pereira was also in attendance and stayed for the duration of the meeting that reconvened after executive session.
Following issuance of their complaints, Lopez and Pereira attended a hearing before Brown, an FOI lawyer. Attorney Michael Jankosvky represented the City Council. Anastasi attended as a witness for the city.
Following the hearing, most of Lopez’s assertions in her complaint were upheld by Brown. From Brown’s decision:
“… this Commission has repeatedly stated that in order for the public to be fairly apprised of the business to be transacted during an executive session, the public agency must give some indication of the specific topic to be addressed, prior to convening such session. Therefore, descriptions such as “personnel,” personnel matters,” “legal” or even “strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation” are inadequate and do not state the reasons for convening in executive session … It is concluded, therefore, that the respondents violated (state law) by failing to state the purpose of the executive session.”
Brown also ruled that the city lawyers failed to state a compelling basis for Flatto and Nkwo to attend the executive session.
“Instead, the presence and participation by so many city officials supports an inference that the discussion was not confined merely to legal strategy and negotiations 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 senior administrative officials … It is concluded, therefore, that the respondents violated (state law) by failing to limit attendance at the executive session in accordance with that provision.”
Regarding Lopez’s assertions that the city denied her the right to attend the portion of the meeting that was held in executive session “it is found that the respondents (city) offered no evidence to prove that the (budget committee) was a “party” to the pending cases discussed during the May 2, 2018 executive session … It is therefore concluded that the respondent (budget committee) violated (state law) by entering into the executive session for an impermissible purpose.”