Click here for copy of the report: FOI Report – FIC 2017-0469
By SHERIDAN CYR
The Connecticut Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission dismissed the court case filed on Aug. 7, 2017, by former Board of Finance member John Moise (D), against the Town Council of the Town of Southington.
According to the official respondents of the Hearing Officer, Attorney Tracie C. Brown, the complaint was filed in response to an unnoticed meeting on August 1, 2017, called by then-chair Mike Riccio.
The complaint charged that a caucus of four Republican councilors, Riccio, Victoria Triano, Paul Champagne and Tom Lombardi became an “illegal” meeting rather than a caucus when Democratic councilor Dawn Miceli joined the discussion via telephone.
The complaint argued that the Aug. 1 meeting was a violation of the FOI Act because they discussed the hiring process of the next Town Manager, and included a Democrat. Those same five participants of the Aug. 1 meeting would soon vote in unison at the Dec. 11 Town Council meeting to appoint the next Town Manager, Mark Sciota, following the retiring of Garry Brumback.
Former assistant town attorney Jeremy Taylor represented the group of councilors, saying at the hearing that the meeting was a Republican caucus called to discuss campaign strategy for the upcoming municipal elections. Taylor said that, at one point, the discussion turned to a controversy about a local Christopher Columbus statue. At that time, he argued, Miceli was called for input on the statue, as she is a member of UNICO, one of the organizations that worked on the project.
The hearing officer reported, “It is found that the respondent chairman also informed the three council members that the present Town Manager was going to announce to his staff, on that morning, that he was resigning but the council members did not discuss that matter during the Au. 1, 2017 gathering.”
The appointment of the Town Manager was a hot topic leading up to the council’s vote. Councilors, in both parties, were divided about the hiring process. The 5-4 vote ultimately led to the appointment of former Town Attorney and Deputy Town Manger Mark Sciota to his current position.
According to Section 1-200(2) of the Connecticut General Statutes, a meeting does not include a caucus of members of a single political party. It is not illegal for the Republican councilors to meet, but once they cross party lines, it violates that statute.
It also states: “…whether in person or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.”
The Hearing Officer recommended the case for dismissal, stating: “It is found that only Republican members of the respondent council attended and/or participated in the Aug. 1, 2017 meeting, and that the only matters discussed were campaign matters.”
“I’m disappointed. From what I read and understood, I believed that would be an illegal meeting,” said Moise. “At the end of the day, the reality in my mind is, it shows there’s a loophole that needs to be closed. Things did happen, and people were excluded. The proof to me was the 5-4 vote to appoint the Town Manager.”
As far as evidence, Moise included comments made on Facebook and articles from local newspapers that contradicted what the defendants argued. “It’s hard to prove,” he said. “I don’t know what the FOI Committee does for research, but it doesn’t appear they asked for phone records, and how would I get phone records on my own?”
Moise said there were discrepancies throughout the whole ordeal, noting that many of the involved members presented slightly different details surrounding the meeting, including time lengths, discussion points, and what to call the meeting.
“They didn’t even know whether to call it a caucus, or a meeting, or an election get-together,” said Moise. “It was all over the place.”
The Hearing Officer’s recommendation for dismissal will be considered by the FOI Committee at its meeting on Feb. 14, and an official ruling will be made on the matter.
“My expectation is the dismissal will stand,” said Southington Republican Town Committee chair Steve Kalkowski. “The findings and the testimony were compelling. I am extremely pleased where this ended up, although disappointed that this went forward right before the [Nov. 7 municipal] election and further undermined our candidates.”
Kalkowski said there was “a lot of undermining and nonsense” before the election. “I think that was the primary objective of Mr. Moise—to add visibility and transparency to this, and now it has turned out to not be an issue based on the Hearing Officer’s recommendation.”
Riccio said he was pleased with the recommendation. “There never was an illegal meeting,” he said. “I just went up there and spoke the truth, so I’m not really surprised with the results. But it feels good to have it in writing.”
Riccio said the ordeal was a political effort to shed negative light on Republican candidates and hurt their chances in the Nov. 7 municipal elections. Ultimately, Republicans lost the super-majority (six Republicans and three Democrats) on the Town Council following elections. The current council is composed of five Democrats and four Republicans.
“I hope the town and the SRTC can move beyond this type of dirty politics that they [the Democrats] seem to proliferate every two years,” said Riccio. “There’s no room, or need, for that in Southington.”
Though disappointed with the recommendation, Moise is not diminished by his efforts. “I’m not going to be bullied around,” he said. “My actions represent my name and my reputation. If I see something wrong, I will go after it. I’ve never backed down from anything, and I don’t do these things willy-nilly. I looked at this from a practical standpoint.”
Moise said he will look at Connecticut General Statutes and talk to State Representatives on how they can be strengthened, so they are more specific.
“I said from the beginning that whatever the FOI Commission decides is what I’m going to go with,” he said. “I respect the decision, and I can appreciate what they dealt with and what they’re looking at. Whether I agree or not is beside the point.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.