Bridgeport Council, lawyers must brush up on FOIA
BRIDGEPORT — City Council members and municipal attorneys have been ordered to go back to school for a refresher course on government transparency.
Specifically, they must schedule a training session with the state Freedom of Information Act Commission.
The council’s Budget Committee has to attend, and City Hall’s law department is “strongly encouraged” to be there as well, according to a report from FOIA Commission staff.
The state’s FOIA office recently investigated a complaint filed by retired Superior Court judge-turned-activist Carmen Lopez, who for the past several years has waged various good-government fights in Bridgeport.
This time Lopez’s target was a May 2 private meeting of the council’s Budget Committee. Lopez alleged that the council members, a handful of city lawyers and the budget and finance directors who attended did not offer a good reason for kicking out the public and holding their hour-long executive session.
“The Freedom of Information (Act) is a very useful tool for those of us that want to know what government is doing behind closed doors,” Lopez said.
Behind closed doors
According to the May 2 meeting transcript, Mark Anastasi, a veteran Bridgeport City Hall attorney, announced the group would “discuss major pending litigation” before the Budget Committee voted to enter executive session.
The law department was apprising council members of “strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims and litigation,” the FOIA office’s case report said.
“It is found that some of the strategies discussed included settlement offers and the potential need to hire outside counsel and expert witnesses,” the report continued.
The May 2 meeting took place during budget season, when some on the council were complaining about the amount of money spent on hiring outside lawyers to augment the law department’s staff.
The FOIA investigation concluded that Anastasi’s explanation for that private huddle was not specific enough.
“Descriptions such as ‘personnel,’ ‘personnel matters,’ ‘legal’ or even ‘strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation’ are inadequate and do not state the reason for convening in executive session,” said the FOIA report.
Further, FOIA staff found that too many people, including council members who are not part of the budget committee, were allowed to attend the executive session meeting.
Bridgeport officials “failed to prove that the non-committee members in attendance provided testimony or opinion on strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation or that their attendance was limited to the period for which their presence was necessary,” said the FOIA office’s report. “Instead, the presence and participation by so many city officials supports an inference that the discussion was not confined merely to legal strategy and negotiations ... but was instead a broad substantive discussion” about Bridgeport’s legal budget or the municipal budget as a whole.
Not only was the refresher course on the Freedom of Information Act ordered, but the city has to retroactively “create minutes of the executive session held during its May 2, 2018 meeting to include a detailed account of the discussions that took place, including the names of the cases discussed” and provide a free copy to Lopez.
The FOIA did not, however, agree with Lopez’s other complaints that an executive session was not included on the budget committee’s original agenda and that not enough committee members voted to hold the behind-closed-doors meeting.
City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer, who runs the law department, said in an interview Friday that his office routinely receives FOIA training.
“This (May 2 meeting) is a kind of unique situation at budget time where we’re discussing how major litigation could potentially affect our budget,” Meyer said. “To disclose the cases we’re talking about ahead of time does a disservice to the taxpayer. It lets our opponents know we think their cases have value.”
But, Meyer added, “To the extent we didn’t comply with technical rules of Freedom of Information, it’s our intent to do our best to always comply with it.”
Lopez, meanwhile, thanked the FOIA office for being “courageous enough” to hold not just the council members accountable, but Bridgeport’s law department. But, Lopez said, she feared her victory would not make much difference.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they go to a course,” Lopez said. “I don’t think they (the council) have any interest to learn. All they do is want to listen to the city attorneys and to whatever the city attorneys say. That’s happened over and over.”