Official: Perez Broke FOI Rules With Arena Task Force
By JEFFREY B. COHEN | Courant Staff Writer
September 09, 2008
Mayor Eddie A. Perez broke the law when he convened closed-door meetings to discuss corporate support for a new arena in Hartford, according to a proposed decision by the state Freedom of Information Commission.
The ruling — written by one of the agency's five commissioners and which must still be voted on by the entire board — comes with penalties. 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.
Perez declined to comment Monday. His spokeswoman, Sarah Barr, would not comment on the penalties but took issue with the proposed decision.
"If this novel concept was adopted by the FOI Commission, no Governor, Mayor, or any public official could convene a group of volunteer advisors to receive advice and counsel on important issues in a private setting," Barr wrote in an e-mail.
The Freedom of Information Commission levies fines sparingly. Of the roughly 260 cases decided in 2007, seven included fines, and two of those seven were against the city of Hartford, according to Tom Hennick, a public education officer with the commission. Those two $200 fines were for Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Nasto after he denied access to public documents. The city has spent more than $50,000 appealing both that decision and a state court ruling affirming it.
Earlier this 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, 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.
State Freedom of Information Commissioner Dennis E. O'Connor heard both sides of the complaint in a July 28 hearing, at which the city was represented by private attorney J. Hanson Guest.
At that hearing and in a subsequent brief to the commission, Guest argued that the task force wasn't a public agency.
"The City made a determination that making this process public would interfere with the free exchange of ideas," Guest wrote in his brief. The Courant, he said, "is engaging in an effort to obtain documents and publicize a process which it clearly has no right to do."
But in his Sept. 3 ruling, O'Connor found that Perez created the task force and that, as a result, the task force is 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."
The full commission is scheduled to vote on O'Connor's proposed decision Sept. 24.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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