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Facing Hearing, Ethics Board Chair Admits FOI Violations



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After a protracted mediation process and with the clock winding down to a Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission hearing, Newtown Board of Ethics Chair Jacqueline Villa admitted to violating the state FOI Act on two separate occasions, both involving illegal executive sessions - meetings with members of her board closed to press and citizens that should have been conducted in public.

The ethics official also admitted to conducting two additional meetings in secret after notifying parties involved that those meetings would be public, but stated she was acting within the law after receiving a partial directive from the town attorney.

An additional unadvertised meeting held in executive session that The Newtown Bee originally appealed to the commission was determined to be legal under state statutes that provide local boards of ethics leeway on keeping meetings private when verifying the merit of citizen complaints.

The FOI appeals were filed May 16 and June 9, and are both tied to the Board of Ethic's handling of local complaints filed against former Board of Education members David Freedman and Kathy Hamilton.

The most curious of these issues involved Ms Villa submitting a written record of how each of her board members voted using secret, sealed ballots during two April 15 hearings. Although Ms Villa had neither advertised or convened a meeting to gather the information, nor accessed the ballots sealed in an envelope being held by the board's clerk since the hearings, she was able to produce the results.

The Bee contended that Ms Villa must have conducted an illegal, unadvertised meeting or polling of members to affirm their votes from the hearing, or she would have no way of submitting them for the record one month later.

Following several rounds of correspondence as part of the FOI mediation, and a special meeting October 6, Ms Villa issued a statement acknowledging "that the individual polling by telephone of members on May 18 to identify how each Board member voted on April 18 was an FOIA violation."

In other documentation transacted as part of the mediation to avoid an FOI hearing, Ms Villa further clarified that, "After discussions with counsel, on May 18, Chairman Villa determined to contact each BOE member individually by telephone to identify how each BOE member voted at the April 18 meetings. The purpose of the poll was to draft a document to be voted on at the special meeting to be held on May 18, to amend the April 18 meeting minutes."

After requesting and reviewing a number of other Board of Ethics agendas and minutes on the Hamilton-Freedman matter, including one for a March 14 special meeting, The Newtown Bee noted that agenda reflected an intent to convene an executive session to "confer with counsel regarding hearing procedures and possible action."

However, minutes to that meeting reflect that a closed executive session was actually held to discuss the specific ethics complaints against Ms Hamilton and Mr Freedman, and not simply "hearing procedures."

In regard to that, Ms Villa stated, "the Board of Ethics convened the Executive Session to confer with counsel regarding hearing procedures and possible action under the sincere belief that this was permissible under FOIA. The Board acknowledges that this was done in error."

Closed Sessions

Two other FOI appeals filed by the newspaper concerned formal notification letters of probable cause to investigate violations of the local Ethics Code dispatched to Ms Hamilton and Mr Freedman on February 15. Those letters notified the respondents that "all proceedings regarding [their ethics] complaint shall be public with the exception of procedural discussions." However, during the respondents' separate hearings on April 18, when it came time to deliberate, Ms Villa called the ethics board members into executive session.

It appeared these sessions were intended to deliberate how ethics members would vote on potential violations of the code, and not "procedure," as was indicated in the respondents' letters - and neither Ms Hamilton nor Mr Freedman had requested deliberations to be held in secret.

During the course of mediation, Ms Villa issued a statement explaining why she felt justified calling these two closed sessions, saying: "In a phone conversation on February 9, Chairman Villa requested advice of the Town Attorney, David Grogins, as to procedural conduct for the public hearing process. Chairman Villa received a memo from Attorney Grogins dated February 16 advising of procedures. Among said procedures, it was indicated that deliberations may be held in executive session. Moreover, the BOE determined that this action would avoid possible repercussions to members of the BOE from their political party affiliation."

That February 16 memo from Mr Grogins outlining hearing procedures does state that ethics hearing "Deliberations of the [board] may be in executive session." Responding to an e-mail sent by The Newtown Bee confirming Mr Grogins' advice, the town attorney replied: "Actually, in certain instances deliberations can be in executive session. The respondents have the right to request that the proceedings be held in open session."

In a subsequent follow-up, Mr Grogins further clarified, "I was referring to section 1-200 subsection (6)(A) Conn Gen Stats when I said they could deliberate in executive session. I should have added '…such individual may require that discussion be held at an open meeting.'"

Since the respondents were never given an opportunity to request deliberations be held in public because the ethics board was not directed to do so in the procedural memo from the town attorney, The Bee opted to not pursue those two appeals in a formal hearing or through mediation.

The mediation between the newspaper and Ms Villa was handled by FOI Commission Public Education Officer Thomas Hennick.

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