Just in time for the Lenten season in March, a Freedom of Information training session for select City Council members. Perhaps a few lawyers if they so choose to repent?
The state Freedom of Information Commission ruled in November 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 2018 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. Will they?
The date for the training session, according to a “speaking engagement” calendar posted on the FOI website is “March 11, 5 pm, City Hall.” It lists the organization as “Corporation Council” aka City Attorney’s Office. The session will be conducted by Thomas Hennick, public education officer for the state FOI. Hennick says the training session is open to the public. Hennick adds that the specific venue, be it City Hall on Lyon Terrace or the City Attorney’s office on Broad Street will be set at some future date by the city.
The observance of Lent begins several days prior but this date falls on Eastern Orthodox Lent. Hmmm, what could city officials sacrifice during this 40-day period?
By way of background Lopez 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. A state hearing officer agreed ordering 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.
The commission gave the city 75 days from November 14 to provide Lopez the minutes
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?
Lopez attended the early part of the meeting and had publicly challenged the veracity of an executive session. School board member Maria Pereira who joined in a complaint 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 Tracie Brown, an FOI lawyer. Attorney Michael Jankosvky represented the City Council. Anastasi attended as a witness for the city.
From Brown’s decision ratified by the FOI commission:
“… 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.”