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
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.