Town Councilor Mike Riccio (R) sounded so sanctimonious when he scolded the Observer at the Jan. 14 town meeting. “Shame on you,” he said to us. “Don’t believe everything you read in the paper,” he warned the public.
We counter with, “Don’t believe everything you hear from the Town Council.”
This public spat between the Southington Town Council and the Observer stems from a series of “off the book” meetings between Town Councilors and Hartford HealthCare officials. Information gathered at these meetings was ultimately used to pass a resolution back in August. None of the information from those meetings was ever made available for public scrutiny before or after the vote.
Now, we find out that this is just business as usual in the Town of Southington. Shame on you, Town Council.
Riccio grandstanded well for the cameras, holding up his right hand to confess his meetings with the HHC as if his honor is beyond reproach. He then admitted to meetings that other councilors held with HHC—never with more than one or two present, he said (as if that matters).
It’s not a party thing. Council chair Chris Palmieri (D) defended his meetings with HHC because “they requested it.” We say, who cares? It’s not HHC’s responsibility to conform to the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA only applies to the government—not HHC presidents, Observer editors, or any private citizen. It’s up to Palmieri to point that out, not HHC.
In fact, the FOI Commission already ruled on this “non quorum loophole” back in 2016 during a complaint between the Record-Journal and the City of Meriden (www.ct.gov/foi/lib/foi/agendas/2016/nov16/2016-0066.pdf). Meriden challenged it all the way up to Connecticut Superior Court (www.ct.gov/foi/lib/foi/courtdecisions/dc2018/cv17-6035943s_.pdf). Meriden officials claimed that it wasn’t a meeting because there was no quorum (sound familiar?), but that argument didn’t hold up. It never does.
Councilors cannot conduct business off the record. They cannot hold meetings in the shadows and claim to be above board. Riccio, Palmieri, and Dawn Miceli are the only three that have admitted to these types of meetings on the public record, but it seems clear by the reaction at the Jan. 14 meeting that nobody on the council sees it as a problem. We do.
Whether it’s the convening of an assembly with a quorum or any other hearing or proceeding where town business is conducted, it is subject to the state’s FOI laws. It doesn’t matter if Riccio is making back-door deals with individuals in his home office like he described. It has to comply with the FOI Act. No councilor is above the law. Council business— official and unofficial—is subject to FOI standards.
That 2016 Meriden case involved a group of four leaders—two minority leaders and two majority leaders—that conducted town business between town meetings. The local example involves individuals and small groups of councilors conducting business with HHC between town meetings.
Ultimately, the court ruled that any meeting—whether it’s in a quorum or not—has to comply with FOI laws. Last August, the Southington Town Council voted for a resolution based on information that still isn’t available to the public. Nothing is stopping them from making future decisions based on this unvetted, undisclosed information. It’s scary.
That’s why we were most disappointed when Riccio turned to Town Attorney Carolyn Futtner and said that he frequently meets with people one-on-one in his home office. “Do we have the right?” he asked.
“I would say you would,” replied the Town Attorney.
To borrow Riccio’s words once again…Shame on you.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.