Psst! Did Ed Board Flunk FOI Class?

Christopher Peak PhotoThe Board of Education may have violated the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act —  right in the middle of a workshop on how to follow that law.

After two proven violations of the state’s open meetings law this year, the board arranged for a training last week at 54 Meadow St. on how to better carry out its duty to do the public’s business in public.

The session, led this past Monday by Thomas Hennick, the public education officer at the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, touched on what staff should put in agendas and minutes, which citizens are allowed to comment or film during meetings, and when board members should take a sensitive discussion behind closed doors.

Hennick said that an open-government law was one of the central planks of Ella T. Grasso’s gubernatorial run in 1974, right as the country’s faith in government had been shaken by the Watergate scandal. The year she took office, she signed the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, guaranteeing access to meetings and records.

“A lot of times people will say to me, ‘Hey, we don’t understand this. We are volunteers; we have other jobs.’ Sometimes, when you’re involved in a situation like this, it’s almost like a second full-time job. You didn’t sign up for the FOI part. You wanted to help your community; you wanted to be a good citizen,” said Hennick. “I get it. But that doesn’t excuse you from knowing freedom of information and working with it. It’s the law, and it governs how you conduct your business.”

Fewer than half of the board’s members showed up for the presentation. As Hennick spoke, the three present — Jamell Cotto, Tamiko Jackson-McArthur and Ed Joyner — whispered among themselves and shared text messages that popped up on their cell phones.

At one point, while the board members muttered to each other, Kathleen Foster, the city’s assistant corporation counsel who handles public-records requests, asked Hennick if sidebar conversations are illegal.

“Don’t do it,” Hennick said, as the board continued to do it.

“Do I have to talk into the mic and say, ‘Pass me the water?’” Cotto asked.

“We don’t want to be naive,” Hennick said.

He gave examples of the type of comments that would violate the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, if whispered: “Can you believe this speaker?” “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” “How are you going to vote?”

“You want to be careful about how you communicate with each other at a meeting,” he explained. “You want to be careful to avoid even having what could look like a conversation that the public should have a right to hear.”

In January, the Finance & Operations Committee’s two co-chairs whispered to each other during a school staffer’s presentation. After a hearing, the Freedom of Information Commission determined that whispering during the meeting violated the law’s requirement that all meetings be open to the public.

Lisa Siegel, a staff attorney at the commission who adjudicated that case, said that a sidebar conversation would be illegal if it the speakers were discussing board business in an inaudible tone.“That’s hard to independently verify,” she pointed out this week, “but that’s the law.”

After the meeting, Jackson-McArthur, who’d arrived late, said that she turned to her fellow board members, because she’d been unable to keep track of the discussion. She asked Cotto and Joyner several times if there was a cheat sheet that she was missing.

“I kept asking if there were any kind of documents. I was looking for some bullet points: ‘These are no-go’s, these are things you can do,’” she said. “I was asking what’s going on.”

At one point, Cotto and Jackson-McArthur had exchanged cell phones. She pulled up the text exchange with her daughter for a reporter to prove they hadn’t been talking about board business.

Even if the board members had an excuse, didn’t the optics look bad? Were the whispered matters that urgent? Especially during a training that was put together because they’d broken the law by whispering to each other in the past?

“We’re in a society now where everyone is so suspicious of everybody. Sometimes it might be, ‘Hey, can I have a mint? My breath stinks,’” Jackson-McArthur said. “I absolutely don’t believe in doing anything underhanded.”

Hennick will return to New Haven in mid-October for another presentation about the Freedom of Information Act’s open-records provisions, which allow anyone to examine or copy documents retained by the school system, as long as they don’t fall into a special category.

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posted by: Patricia Kane on September 24, 2018  7:39am

Why doesn’t the city simply mandate Freedom Of Information training for all Alders and members of Boards and Commissions, as well as Task Forces and Management Teams?
  Very few of the people who volunteer know the ground rules, but they should. In fact, I’ve talked with people after their training and they wished that they had had it earlier because they could have avoided problems.
  The goal is not to play “gotcha”, but to allow all these entities to function without the interruption and distraction of FOIA complaints.
    The City is a regular respondent at the Freedom of Information Commission, which costs time and money that do not have to be spent.
    The people in the Corporation Counsel’s Office know the rules, but are brought in after the fact.
    Why doesn’t one of the Alders propose such a mandate?
    Full disclosure: I have previously filed and won a FOIA complaint against a City entity.

posted by: 1644 on September 24, 2018  7:50am

CCM has some upcoming workshops on public meetings in earlier October. Board members could benefit from these workshops on FOI and “How to Run Legal and Effective Meetings”:

posted by: tmctague on September 24, 2018  12:15pm

I agree with Patricia Kane’s comment: the BOE’s current mission is to cut the budget while maintaining transparency.  That second part, transparency, could be improved by mandating FOI and adhering to the norms outlined above.  On a more cynical note, I have to assume MANY BOEs in CT do not follow any rules, and operate on traditional norms. 

If only local charter schools and CMOs like Booker T. Washington, Achievement First, Highville, and Common Ground could be ‘nudged’ to adopt these policies, GREATLY increasing their potential for transparency. 

Has anyone been to a BOE meeting for any of the local charter schools?  How was it?

posted by: 1644 on September 24, 2018  3:19pm

tmctague: The suburban BoE’s I am familiar with do follow FOI and Roberts Rules.  Most boards have their meetings recorded, so you may view them yourself.  New Haven’s BoE, at least in the country, is an outlier in its ignorance and disdain for open government.  (A while back, Mr. Goldson was on these pages insisting holding a meeting via e-mail was perfectly proper.
    The problem with New Haven’s BoE is the problem with New Haven’s government:  single party rule.  Most towns have guaranteed minority representation.  It’s rarely enough to change policies, but generally enough to raise alarms about illegal behavior, such as the mayor’s post election raise.  To his great credit, Mayor Cassetti of Ansonia wants Ansonia’s charter changed to guarantee minority representation.

posted by: Blitheringidiot on September 24, 2018  4:50pm

You know, there’s NON-VERBAL communication that we teach kids. You know, sippy sippy motion for a glass of water. Everyone can see what you want. They are not suspicious of what you might be saying. You can have mints on the table.

The optics ARE bad.

Your cellphone doesn’t need to be available during this meeting. You give it to someone to babysit.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 24, 2018  8:33pm

I think EVERYBODY in City Hall needs some FOI training—still waiting on a recent request—over a week later, and all I’ve heard is CRICKETS!

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 25, 2018  8:17am

As a post script to my earlier posting re: mandatory FOIA training, the Alders could be excluded, but it’s clear from continuous problems with the Board of Ed, Management Teams, etc. that the City would be spared the cost of sending Corporation Counsel to FOI Commission hearings, not to mention the articles, such as the one above, that make people look wilfully ignorant and dismissive of the rules designed for transparency in a representative democracy.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 25, 2018  10:15am

Patricia Kane,

I think Mr. Cotto’s behavior in this ‘forum’ was childish, arrogant, and indicative of the ignorance and contempt that the City of New Haven has for Open Meeting and Records Law.

Mr. Hennick was fair in dealing with him, but maybe a little ‘naive’ as well.

I wouldn’t put it past this ‘crew’ for a whispered request for a ‘glass of water’ to be ‘secret code’.

I would also like to add that the other person who has shown that he is willfully ignorance of his responsibilities under FOIA, is Jason Bartlett, head of Youth Services.  Coincidentally, —that CRICKET finally chirped right after I posted my previous comment, but once he again abrogated all responsibility and passed the buck.  It was nice of him to put it in writing, though.

Do we see a pattern yet, New Haven?