Foliage, Frost, Frozen Ponds and The FOIA: More Interesting Cases From The FOIC (Part One)

FOI

Dropping thermometers did not diminish the heated action occurring before Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission [“FOIC”]. It should also go without saying that the accompanying snow, ice and other perils of winter did not eliminate the need of public agencies to comply with Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act [“FOIA”].  Here are some decisions of note from our friends at the FOIC from last fall and the winter, with the focus in this post on public meetings.

Open doors = open meetings.

Sometimes, the difference between complying with and violating the FOIA may be remembering to turn the door knob (and open the darn door) when you are done with an executive session.  In Saluga v. Chairman, Board of Ethics, Town of Brookfield, #FIC 2015-228 (December 16, 2015), a citizen complained that a town board of ethics violated the FOIA by failing to announce that an executive session had concluded and the public portion of the meeting had reconvened.  The board of ethics had entered into executive session and the only member of the public present (the complainant) was asked to leave the room.  After he had left, the door to the meeting room was closed.  Once the executive session had concluded, the chairperson of the board opened the meeting room door (and even used a wedge to keep the door open), saw the complainant was in conversation with another citizen in the hallway, said nothing, and then reconvened the meeting in public.  The FOIC ruled that the board complied with the FOIA.

Lessons?  There was no duty for the chairperson to tell the complainant after opening the door “hey, we are going back into public session.”  Visibly and adequately opening the door was sufficient to allow the FOIA’s sunshine (and the public) in.

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow prevents a board from meeting  

In a case decided in the fall, but apropos for winter, the FOIC essentially declared that harsh New England weather does not constitute a violation of the FOIA. In Krayeske v. President, Court of Common Council, City of Hartford, #FIC 2015-076 (September 24, 2015), a citizen claimed that the City of Hartford’s Common Council violated the FOIA by holding a regular meeting during a blizzard, asserting that the weather conditions were so severe that the public was effectively prevented from attending the meeting, and requesting that all actions taken at this meeting be declared null and void. At the time of the meeting, there was a blizzard warning, a travel ban on State roads was about to take effect, CT Transit suspended bus service, and the Mayor closed city offices and issued a parking ban on city streets.  Nonetheless, the FOIC ruled in favor of the City, noting that there is no provision in the FOIA that expressly prohibits a public agency from convening a properly noticed meeting during a snow storm.

Lessons? One can debate the wisdom of conducting public agency business during inclement weather.  However, the City Council was within its right to proceed with its meeting.  While it is the job of a public agency to comply with the FOIA (and make sure that its meetings are in public and properly noticed), there is nothing in the FOIA that requires that meetings take place at optimal times, or that the occurrence of an otherwise properly noticed meeting be contingent upon a Doppler radar.

So Are There Any Larger Truths Here?

In Krayeske, the FOIC noted that it is charged with administering the FOIA as it is written, and declined to supplement the FOIA with prohibitions that were not included in the law by our legislature.  Of course, public agencies are free to exceed the FOIA’s mandates.  However, provided that they meet the minimal FOIA requirements, public agencies otherwise do have discretion in terms of how they operate their meetings.  While public agencies may be required to post their meetings, they are not required to advertise and publicize their actions to maximum effect.

These and other types of issues are discussed in more detail in Understanding the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act and Access to Public Meetings and Records, by Mark J. Sommaruga, Esq.  To order a copy of this book, please click here.