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City Loses FOI Appeal

By Jeffrey B. Cohen

June 05, 2009

A state court judge upheld a recent Freedom of Information Commission decision against the city this week, saying Mayor Eddie A. Perez broke the law when he convened closed-door meetings in 2008 to discuss corporate support for a new arena in Hartford.

As a result, the city must release minutes from all the meetings of Perez's arena study task force; Perez must pay a $500 civil penalty; and both Perez and city attorney John Rose are "strongly encouraged" to attend a workshop on the state's freedom of information laws.

In a decision filed June 3, state Judge Henry S. Cohen dismissed the city's appeal of the 2008 FOI Commission ruling, saying the commission acted properly and within its discretion. The city can appeal. It says it is considering its options. (Getty Images)

Last year, Perez wanted to know whether there was sentiment within the Greater Hartford business community to support a new downtown arena, so he created a task force to study the question.

On April 9, 2008, Perez convened the first closed-door meeting of his task force at city hall. Its chairman was Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of The Travelers Cos. It included other business officials, a union representative, elected state officials and state and city employees.

Business leaders have said they needed closed-door meetings so they could speak with candor. The Courant questioned the need for secrecy and filed a complaint with the state. According to state law, the office of the mayor is a public agency, as is "any committee of, or created by" that office.

After its first meeting, the group stopped meeting at city hall and retreated to the offices of the MetroHartford Alliance regional chamber of commerce. There, too, the meetings were closed to the public.

Last year, the FOI Commission found that the task force was public. He also found that the task force meetings held at the MetroHartford Alliance were public meetings and that "moving the location of the arena task force ... did not affect the task force's status as a public agency."

Since March of last year, the city has spent roughly $100,000 on legal fees to defend three complaints brought by The Courant. The state's Freedom of Information Commission ruled against the city in each of the three cases.

Sarah Barr, Perez's spokeswoman, says the city has issues with the way the FOI law is written.

"We may consider asking the General Assembly to look at that legislation," Barr said. "Under this interpretation of the statute, hundreds of meetings and gatherings held at the state and local level could be construed as being subject to FOI laws.

Reprinted with permission of the CityLine blog of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the CityLine at http://blogs.courant.com/cityline/ and the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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