Unfortunately, we dropped the ball. It happens from time to time. It wasn’t our intention, and we hope that we’ve learned from our mistake.
Newspapers have a valuable role as government watchdogs, wading through the minutiae of meetings, public records, and day-to-day activities to ensure that nobody in government oversteps their authority. It’s one of the reasons our nation’s forefathers protected a free press in the first amendment. The press is a necessary check and balance to protect a democracy, and we take that role seriously. But a recent Freedom of Information Act complaint, filed by us, was made too late. For that we apologize.
The complaint centered around a series of meetings held between the Hospital of Central Connecticut and individual councilors. We pointed out in editorials that councilors have no power to conduct business as individuals. The only time they can do business is in a quorum, at a town meeting. We did had conversations with more than one councilor, but those conversations seemed to fall on deaf ears.
We took issue that information gathered at those one-on-one meetings was ultimately used to pass a resolution back in August. It was bullied through by the Democrats despite protests from the Republicans that the business should have an opportunity to speak on the record first. Yes, it was a non-binding resolution, but we believe that it sets a dangerous precedent. Town leaders voted for a motion based on information that still isn’t available for public review, and that information could still be used for future decisions about this local business down the road.
We were eventually forced to file a complaint after the discussion with one councilor devolved into an impasse, but our delay to file the paperwork moved the complaint outside the 30-day time frame of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. The state no longer has jurisdiction.
“Our hands are tied as far as having a hearing and letting the town know that they had illegal meetings,” an FOI Commission official finally ruled in an email last Friday. “I will contact them and let them know that those were illegal meetings and going forward they must let the public know.”
The official did admit that “it certainly looks like they held illegal meetings,” and she told us that she reached out to Town Attorney Carolyn Futtner to share case law that supports that councilors cannot circumvent the law by holding one-on-one meetings or purposefully avoiding a quorum. Hopefully, it changes the way the council conducts business in the future because that was the intent of our complaint in the first place.
Councilors cannot hold one-on-one meetings to circumvent public record. The Southington Town Council is a body of nine councilors with no powers given to any individual member in the charter. We don’t believe that these meetings were scheduled with any sort of malicious motive, but as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
We believe that this non-quorum way to do business has to stop. First, councilors conducting business as individuals is an abuse of the power vested in the group by the charter. Second, those illegal meetings aren’t compliant with Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. Finally, these informal, off-the-record meetings systemically push people off of the public record by keeping them out of regular town meetings.
We’ve learned our lesson. Next time, we won’t delay. That’s our New Year’s resolution.