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Lopez Files FOI Complaint Against City, Charging Violations At City Council Meeting

May 5th, 2018 · 30 Comments · City Budget, City Council, News and Events

Retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez on Friday filed a complaint with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission charging that a meeting on Tuesday by the City Council’s Budget & Appropriations Committee triggered a series of state violations stemming from an improperly noticed executive session for “pending litigation” that also “established a quorum of the entire City Council of the City of Bridgeport without adequate notice in violation of the FOIA.”

Lopez charges that the violations were at the direction of lawyers with the City Attorney’s Office.

See Lopez’s complete complaint below:

TO: THE CONNECTICUT FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION

RE:  Complaint by Carmen L. Lopez, resident and taxpayer of the City of Bridgeport

V

Budget and Appropriations Committee of the Bridgeport City Council and

City Council President, Aidee Nieves,

City Council Members: Ernie Newton, Eneida Martinez, Pete Spain, Alfredo Castillo, Rosalina Roman-Christy, Kyle Langan, Karen Jackson, Maria Valle,

City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer, Deputy City Attorney John Bohannon, Associate City Attorneys, Tyisha Toms, Tamara Titre, Bruce Levin, Lawrence Oulette, Jr., and Mark Anastasi.

Date: May 4, 2018

Members of Budget and Appropriations Committee (B & A) of the Bridgeport City Council include the following:

1. Denise Tayor-Moye: Member of City Council and Co-Chair of B & A Committee;

2. María Zambrano-Viggiano: Member of City Council and Co-Chair of B & A Committee;

3. Jeannette Herron: Member of City Council and of B & A Committee;

4. Mary McBride-Lee: Member of City Council and of B & A Committee;

5. Thomas McCarthy: Member of City Council and of B & A Committee;

6. Christina C. Smith: Member of City Council and of B & A Committee;

7. Nessah Smith: Member of City Council and of B & A Committee

The Complainant alleges the following:

1. The City Council of the City of Bridgeport, and its various standing committees, are public agencies within the meaning of Connecticut General Statutes section 1-200 (1);

2. The Budget and Appropriations Committee is a standing committee of the City Council;

3. On or about April 3, 2018, the Budget and Appropriations Committee noticed and published the “Official Budget Hearing Schedule for FY 2018-2019″ (copy is attached and marked as Ex. 1);

4. The said Schedule gave notice on behalf of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, to the public, that 18 hearings were scheduled from April 5, 2018 through May 8, 2018;

5. On or about April 24, 2018, the City Clerk of the City of Bridgeport, Ms. Lydia Martinez, issued a memo giving notice that the:

“Budget Meeting schedule had been revised to include the following changes: the Registrar of Voters Department has been removed from the schedule for Wednesday, April 25, 2018 and A General Budget Discussion has been added to the schedule. There are no other changes to the schedule at this time.” (Copy of City Clerk memo is attached and marked as Ex. 2)

6. The City Clerk memo attached a “Revised Budget meeting schedule described as

“4/24/18 Rev. #2″ (copy of Revised Budget meeting schedule is attached and described as Ex. 3)

7. No other notices were posted regarding changes to the schedule or the meeting/hearing format.

8. On Tuesday, May 2, 2018 at 6:00 o’clock pm, the complainant and other members of the public appeared at the Wheeler Rooms, located at the Bridgeport City Hall to hear the presentation of the City Attorney as scheduled and noticed in the Budget Hearings Schedule.

9. Four members of Budget and Appropriations Committee (Denise Taylor-Moye, Jeannette Herron, Christina Smith, and Mary McBride-Lee) were seated around a conference table, waiting for other members of the Committee to appear;

10. As the committee waited, Ken Flatto, Director of Finance and Nestor Nkwo, Director of the Office of Policy and Management (OPM), entered the room and sat at the table;

11. In addition, the President of the City Council, Aidee Nieves, and City Council members, Alfredo Castillo, Peter Spain, Eneida Martinez, Ernest Newton, and Maria Valle, entered and took their seats at the table to wait for the City Attorney’s Office to appear to make their presentation.

12. The following members of the City Attorney’s Office entered the room and prepared a table for their presentation: Chief City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer, Deputy City Attorney, John Bohannon, Associate City Attorneys, Bruce Levin, Lawrence Oulette, Jr., Tyisha Toms, and Mark Anastasi.

13. The Meeting was called to order at approximately 6:12 pm.

14. As soon as Associate City Attorne

15. The complainant, Carmen L. Lopez, approached Council Members Eneida Martinez and Pete Spain to point out the error in this City Attorney statement. The complainant also asked for the reason for an Executive Session, per the FOIA. The complainant also informed the council members present that this was a budget hearing on the City Attorney budget and that notice was never provided to the public concerning an Executive Session on “Pending Litigation”.

16. Council Member Peter Spain responded to the complainant’s questions and concerns by stating to the undersigned that he was not a member of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, therefore he could not address the Committee’s error. Council Member Pete Spain remained at the Executive Session, even though he was told of the violations of the FOIA.

17. Upon information and belief, Council Member Eneida Martinez objected to entering into the Executive Session and advised the elected and appointed officials in attendance. Upon information and belief, she was overruled by City Council President Aidee Nieves who stated that this was the procedure that was always used for these meetings.

18. Before leaving the room, the complainant insisted on being informed of the reason for the Executive Session, as required by the FOIA. Attorney Mark Anastasi stated that it was to discuss “pending litigation” and the public was to be excluded from these discussions.

19. Attorney Anastasi never stated the name of the pending case to be discussed, nor did he list the names of the individuals to be part of the Executive session, in violation of the FOIA.

20. The complainant then left the meeting room to wait until the public would be permitted to re-enter the meeting. The Director of Finance and the Director of OPM remained in the room, as did many non-City Council members of the Budget and Appropriations Committee.

21. While outside in the hallway, complainant approached Associate City Attorney Tamara Titre, a member of the City Attorney’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office designated FOI attorney. She was in a discussion with the newly appointed city parking violations hearing officer, Mr. Matthew McCarthy.

22. The complainant requested that Attorney Titre enter the room and advise the City Attorney’s Office that excluding the public from a meeting that appeared on a Budget Hearing Schedule to discuss the City Attorney budget, was unlawful and violated the open meeting law.

23. Attorney Titre advised the undersigned that Attorney Tyisha Toms was responsible for this, and that she was not a part of the attorneys involved in this budget committee meeting. She did, however, enter the room and remained.

24. Upon information and belief, other City Council members, including Thomas McCarthy, Nessah Smith, and Karen Jackson entered the meeting during the Executive Session. Upon further information and belief, City Council member Kyle Langan entered the meeting at the end of the Executive Session. Therefore, the presence of these city council members (non-members of the Budget and Appropriations Committee) established a quorum of the entire City Council of the City of Bridgeport without adequate notice in violation of the FOIA.

25. The effect of this was that the City Council of the City of Bridgeport held an illegal unnoticed meeting behind closed doors.

26. The undersigned left City Hall and did not attempt to re-enter the meeting.

27. Upon information and belief, the City Council remained behind closed doors for an hour. Members of the public remained in the hallway until they were allowed to return to the meeting room.

The undersigned alleges that the following sections of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act have been violated:

1. Section 1-225 (a) states in relevant part, that “the meetings of all public agencies, except executive sessions, as defined in subdivision (6) of section 1-200, shall be open to the public.

The notice of the May 2, 2018 meeting, clearly and unambiguously stated that a “Budget Hearing on the Office of the City Attorney” was to be held at that time and place. No other discussion was to be held at that time, therefore, no notice of any other item was provided to the public.

2. Section 1-225 (c) states, in relevant part, that “The agenda of the regular meetings of every public agency, except for the General Assembly, shall be available to the public and shall be filed, not less than 24 hours before the meetings to which they refer … Upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of the public agency present and voting, any subsequent business not included in such filed agendas may be considered and acted upon at such meetings.”

The Budget and Appropriations Committee added an Executive Session to the May 2, 2018 meeting, and failed to obtain a two-thirds vote of its members to do so. In fact, the Budget and Appropriations Committee did not take a vote at all and excluded the public, before going into Executive Session to purportedly discuss an item that was not properly noticed.

3. Section 1-225 (f) provides that a public agency may hold an executive session as defined in subdivision (6) of section 1-200, upon an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of such body present and voting, taken at a public meeting and stating the reasons for such executive session as defined in section 1-200.

The Budget and Appropriations committee did not take a vote to go into executive session nor did it state the reasons for such executive session. Furthermore, the fact that Associate City Attorney Anastasi, as counsel for the City Council committee, announced that an executive session was necessary to discuss “pending litigation” is insufficient. Attorney Anastasi is not a member of the agency and any statement by him that he wishes to discuss “pending litigation” is neither a motion nor a vote of the agency and does not adequately apprise the public of the matter to be addressed in executive session. (See Geer v P & Z, Town of North Stonington-Docket # FIC 2004-147).

4. Section 1-231 governs the conduct of an agency concerning an Executive Session. It provides “At an Executive Session of a Public agency, attendance shall be limited to members of said body and persons invited by said body to present testimony or opinion pertinent to matters before said body provided that such persons attendance shall be limited to the period for which their presence is necessary to present such testimony or opinion and, provided further, that the minutes of such executive session shall disclose all persons who are in attendance except job applicants who attend for the purpose of being interviewed by such agency.”

Because no motion of the committee was made, no persons were specifically invited to attend the meeting. Therefore, many members of the City Attorney’s Office, the Directors of Finance and Office and Policy Management remained in a purported Executive Session which Attorney Anastasi said was to discuss “pending litigation.” There was no pending litigation concerning the Budget and Appropriations Committee or the City Council and it strains credulity to believe that financial officials were necessary to provide input regarding, “strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation …” This lends credence to the notion that the real purpose of the closed door meeting was to permit the City Attorney to explain his budget proposal in private without the presence of Bridgeport residents, rather than any alleged discussion of “pending litigation.”

5. Section 1-206 (b) (1) states that any person wrongfully denied the right to attend any meeting of a public agency or denied any other right conferred by the Freedom of Information Act may appeal therefrom to the Freedom of Information Commission, by filing a notice of said appeal with said commission.

6. Section 1-206 (b) (2) allows the Freedom of Information Commission to impose a civil penalty of not less than $20.00 nor more than $1,000 in the event that the Commission finds that the denial of the right created by the FOIA was without reasonable grounds.

Given the presence of the majority of the members of the City Attorney’s Office involved in this decision to exclude the public, without adequate notice or an agenda, without a vote of the members either to add an item to the agenda or to go into executive session, this violation is especially egregious and a fine should be imposed.

Furthermore, the Commission should note that Attorney Anastasi has been found by the Freedom of Information Commission, in Docket # FIC 2002-034, to have engaged in a “history of delay, false representations and non-compliance” in dealings before the FOIC. In the case cited, the CTPOST newspapers were attempting to secure the release of then Mayor Ganim’s cell phone records. The commission determined that the conduct of Attorney Anastasi was “simply inexcusable.” The commission further determined that “no further evidence will be accepted in this case and the Commission will draw negative inferences against the respondents.”

The Commission imposed civil penalties against several of the respondents in the said case and the Complainant respectfully requests that the Commission impose civil penalties in this matter also. Evidently, the findings of this Commission in the earlier case did not prove to be a deterrent to future bad behavior or an incentive to follow the clear commands of the Freedom of Information Act.

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30 Comments so far ↓

  • Ron Mackey

    Unfortunately this is nothing new for Hamilton Burger, it’ his way or no way and the only thing that stops this bullxxxx is to standup and challenge Burger.

    • Lisa Parziale

      Ron, while you’re correct, let’s take it down a little. What the heck was wrong with the City Council members who not only did nothing to stop this but stayed in the room as part of the blind leading the blind. This proves that IQ has nothing to do do with being a strong, independent councilperson who can instinctively know when to raise his/her voice in protest. I’ve always maintained it’s not the losing, but the lack of self-confidence coupled with ignorance.

      • Ron Mackey

        Lisa, you are so right, by not knowing those council members are allowing Hamilton Burger to push them around,thank god that Judge Lopez has no fear of Burger.

      • The Bridgeport Kid

        Joe Ganim, Mario Testa and the City Attorney’s office have been railroading the people of the city of Bridgeport for years by playing on the City Council’s ignorance of the rules of how things are proscribed by law. Good for Judge Lopez.

        It isn’t a lack of self confidence, Lisa. They just don’t know any better.

  • Maria Pereira

    I was present and everything Judge Lopez stated in her complaint is 100% accurate.

    We have six City Attorneys leading the B & A Committee into a completely unlawful Executive Session on an item that was not noticed on the agenda in any way, shape or form.

    • Ron Mackey

      Maria, you are right, this incident shows the lack of knowledge that they have of history. For someone like Judge Lopez to step up and show true leadership and concern for the rule of law and the City Charter at no cost is truly a gift to Bridgeport but no, every council member lost any respect that I had for them. Yes, all 20 Bridgeport City Council members and all 20 are Democrats thanks for nothing.

  • Lisa Parziale

    Ron and Maria, I know we have a few members with the ability and willingness to research Council procedure. The mere fact that Judge Lopez was again there to bail them out, and not one backed her up? In my day we would have left that meeting in protest leaving just the incompetent City attorneys there to twiddle their thumbs.

  • Ethan Book

    Great work, Judge Lopez! You are right on track with what is direly needed to clean up the municipal swamp !!

  • Bob Walsh

    You’ve got that straight!!!
    If they were going to discuss pending legislation than you cover everything else first. Then in executive session you discuss pending legislation and legal strategy relative to specific cases and then come out of executive session.
    If the attorneys start talking about geralities you remind them you are in executive session and to keep your remarks relative to the matter at hand.
    But I must admit that with not many members knowledgeable of how it’s been done in the past you have a select small group leading the lambs to slaughter.

  • Bob Walsh

    But most importantly:
    1) The City Council MUST attend a training class conducted by the FOI Commission before attending another meeting where executive session or a quorum is call for.
    2) Since the City Attorney serves as the legal advisor to the council, each and every member of the City Attorney’s Office who was present should be fined the maximum amount allowable by law AND it must be paid from their own monies.
    3) If allowable the amount fined should be trebled to let them know this type of behavior will not be tolerated going forward.

  • Ron Mackey

    Lisa, some of them are embarrassed, shame and scared because they truly don’t understand the charter, rules and procedures or the subject matter and they don’t want anyone to know and they don’t have the courage to ask. This allows Mayor Ganim and Hamilton Burger to bullied them and nobody wants to get primary.

    • Lisa Parziale

      Bubba we spent years representing our district and we didn’t come on with a textbook on how to be a district representative on the Council. We were fast learners, teachable, and never ever intimidated by anyone, from the Mayors on down. What we didn’t know we researched or reached out to credible mentors. What a bunch, I worked so hard with the belief I assisted new representation in our district, I also responded to a few others who requested my help in their campaign efforts. I know you did also. Well, where the heck are they now?
      Too proud to ask for help? Disrespectful to an esteemed Judge? Ten Council members were replaced, and we still have the same old same old.

      • Ron Mackey

        Lisa, these council members are like Dorothy’s friends in the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow who has no brains , the Lion has no courage and Tin Man has no heart.

    • Lisa Parziale

      Ron, as usual, you nailed it.

  • Ethan Book

    Looks like fraud and conspiracy on the part of some officials of the Office of the City Attorney and at least negligence on the part of some City Council members. Is it any wonder that our taxes are so high !!

  • John Marshall Lee

    Again, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of Judge Lopez to “right our ship of state”, that is City of Bridgeport governance procedures when they cause the ship to list in one bad direction or another. The City Attorney office has a role to play in day to day activity of course. But when it allows itself to wrongfully use legal procedure and impose limitations on the public’s knowledge of events rather than act as a protector of public rights and steward of just results for all the people, it descends to an indefensible place.

    Judge Lopez was present to observe, reflect and compare the actions and substantiation in this event. She also has set out a format for citizens who attend such meetings (as listeners only) to reasonably question notice of, purpose of, case or issue as subject of “executive session” request. We need to learn such response to protect ourselves from unnecessary victimization by our own “supposed legal arbiters and trustees of the good and the right”. This is but an example of the autocratic approach being practiced at another level of American governance.

    The City Attorney budget? Was it discussed? How would we know as CT Post coverage has been even lighter this budget session than in previous years. Our legal budget has been increasing faster than average. Why? Cases with settlements or judgments running against the City? Fees to outside firms for special needs for what areas of law? Where is the evidence of legal awareness, training and experience from our Mayor, Ganim2? Does he reserve public comment at this important time for him outside the City for only the most egregious examples of politically padding the people’s payroll with patronage projects? Who are the select who seem to answer to no one, have “projects” in their working titles, but are accountable for no results? What hours are they working? What is the important work they accomplish? Those two facts would allow us to imagine a Cost/Hour and understand its value relative to the day of a teacher in a classroom to our children. Isn’t that the grand question that the Council has to wrestle with each year at this time? (More on this subject this Monday evening at the CC public speaking session before the meeting.)

    Finally, Judge Lopez the subject of public rights, legal procedure, and the misfires of our own City legal office at times may seem complicated to some. However, just as that office has seemed to find a reasonable course for following FOI process, maybe this issue might allow a course to be held for CC members and other Bridgeport citizens so that all of us know when to “SAY SOMETHING, because we SEE SOMETHING” operating not according to Charter and other law?? Maybe those who were to take such instruction and pass a brief test on the material might “Pass Jail and Ignore Any Fine”? Time will tell.

  • Rich Augustynowicz

    Thank you again Judge Lopez! Lisa you hit the nail in the head with “where are they now” but some were in fact part of what initiated the WPCA issue so we must not give up hope that the “new blood “ won’t in fact make a difference. Similarly, speaking about attorneys for the city, one would think that Liskov , who sits and advises the zoning board would have opined on the unconstitutionality of certain portions of the proposed liquor text amendment brought forth by OPED’s Lynn Haig to benefit Attorney Willinger’s client- Michael Defilippo. These people purposely do not perform their duties so that the direction of the “favored” applicants can be marshalled forward in utter disregard of the people’s wishes. Ethics seems to not play any role in these attorneys behavior. Time for a change.

  • Lisa Parziale

    Maybe we have to get back to grassroots communication with the citizens of Bridgeport. I know plenty of frustrated, angry residents throughout the City that would gladly sign a petition, that would include the names of their Council representatives, when matters of fraud and manipulation occur that in the end affect the bottom line, the taxpayers. Full disclosure, I don’t believe anyone of the councilmembers errs intentionally, but that doesn’t matter to those who vote. They want, expect and deserve men and women who will speak for them from the council seats they occupy because of the voting public. Put away cell phones and computers, listen and take notes like adults.

    • Ethan Book

      Lisa Parziale, it may be that some Council members don’t act intentionally, but it’s difficult for me to imagine that there are not instances that various don’t see warning signals that they don’t act upon!

  • Rich Augustynowicz

    What ever happened to the council getting “their own” attorney?

  • Local Eyes

    The collective wisdom of an aging population is staggering. Unlike others, Judge Lopez is retired but not expired.

  • Tom White

    I am grateful that Judge Lopez is giving the city council members a voice that they lack.

    It may appear that Judge Lopez is splitting hairs, but what appears to be a slight oversight for convenience is quite significant.

    The City Attorney’s office budget likely includes funding to settle suits. It may have been convenient to explain to council members what those cost were and why they were a justified budget item. Going into executive session is allowed for discussion of pending litigation, but that is not how the meeting was posted. It was a blatant FOI violation.

    The comment noted by the current council president was key, that this was how it has been done. Well, not true. She is apparently following the lead of her predecessor, Tom McCarthy. The current council president knows no other way.

    When I was hired by the city council, the then-council president, Andres Ayala, directed me take all necessary measures to insure that the city council complied with Freedom of Information guidelines. I attended a workshop conducted by the FOI Commission for municipal officials and staff.

    This led to the city council and city attorney arranging presentations by the FOI Commission for city staff and city council members. Mayor Fabrizi was very supportive of these efforts. The corruption in the first Ganim administration sent a message for the need for openness and compliance to law.

    Fast-forward to the Finch administration and Tom McCarthy as city council president. It became very evident that the city council was controlled by the Finch administration through control of Council President McCarthy.

    Some city council members who relied on me to do research and gather facts were gradually moved to dependence on arrangements and quick fixes by McCarthy through Finch’s chief of staff. So much so, that they no longer saw value in understanding ordinances, charter guidelines and, yes, FOI compliance. My collegial relationship with the city attorney on the council member’s behalf changed as everything was directed through McCarthy.

    The effect was a complete dependency on McCarthy to direct every move of the city council. Even with turnover of membership of the city council, the bad habits introduced by McCarthy are still evident.

    There appears to be change coming about though. A few of the council members are questioning how the council conducts business. They need expertise to guide them.

    Thank you to Judge Lopez for being there for them and the residents of Bridgeport.

  • Ron Mackey

    Lisa Parziale, there has been too much dancing around this issue, people have lost their property and their homes and there is NO leadership from Mayor Ganim, the City Council but it’s deeper than that. Poor people mostly people of color are the victim of this out of control City Attorney Office who are making up things as they go along but where is George Mintz and the NAACP, black home owners are losing their homes. Where are all these new organizations that pop up for this recent election like Generation Now, Better Bridgeport, Councilman Pete Spain where are your voices? The City Council has a gift right in front of them Judge Carmen Lopez sitting in the meeting and they totally disrespect her because they don’t the rules and procedures. Everybody wants the attention, they all want to the leader, council president or committee chair, a delegate to a convention but they don’t want to lead they just want the position and power without knowing what it takes to lead.

  • Lisa Parziale

    Tom, I challenge anybody to say you weren’t an asset to the Council and could have saved them from the surly reputation they have, then and now. Tom McCarthy is bitter because his plans of succeeding Finch were dashed and he must now drive to New Haven every day, and every week sit in a council chair he no longer owns. He’s a glorified temp. Then we have my friend, and I mean that Ernie who knows exactly how his colleagues are screwing up, and I haven’t heard a word or quote from him. Two former Council President sitting, where’s the guidance if just for the City of Bridgeport. Excuse me I stand corrected, McCarthy never guided, but Ernie did.

  • Frank Gyure

    ET TU……………………?

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