The Importance of Proper Public Notice

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By Mary Ann Dostaler, Brownfields Redevelopment Agency member, East Hampton, Conn.

One of the most basic requirements of Freedom of Information is proper public notice. The Connecticut FOI Commission has established clear precedent supported by court decisions that a public notice is proper only if it fairly and sufficiently apprises the public of the action(s) proposed, making possible for the public to prepare for and be present to express their views. This matter becomes especially important when the matters being discussed concern significant actions or expenditures of public funds. When a government fails to provide transparency on notices, it opens the door for public officials to act out of the public eye.

This is what happened in my town of East Hampton, Conn. A task force formed by the Town Council was charged with implementing a plan to develop a large-scale municipal water system. But there was one problem – the voters had previously rejected the plan at referendum. The Town Council, however, was not to be deterred. It allowed the Water Development Task Force (which included two members of Town Council) to hold executive sessions for the purpose of discussing land acquisitions to secure a water source, locate a treatment facility and consider potential litigation for eminent domain. Subsequent agendas of the Water Development Task Force stated only “Executive Session – Land Acquisition/Pending Litigation,” which fell far short of sufficiently apprising the public about the purpose of the land to be acquired or the possibility of taking properties by eminent domain. I asked the Town Council and the town manager for clarifying information but was refused. My only recourse was to file an FOI complaint.

When an FOIA complaint is filed in Connecticut, an ombudsman is assigned to negotiate with both parties to reach a settlement. The town refused to settle and chose to fight my complaint at a hearing. After more than ten months of a formal process, the FOIC issued its proposed decision upholding my complaint and finding that the town repeatedly violated FOI in regard to sufficient public notice.

The response from the town manager and members of the Town Council to the decision has been to spin the issue in an attempt to deflect accountability. Rather than concede that they did not provide adequate information and dutifully promise to do so in the future, they launched personal and political attacks that defy reason. (See here.)

In this case, the public was intentionally excluded from significant discussions that had enormous financial consequences for taxpayers.  Information was only released by the town after everything was in place. It’s simply easier for public officials to do what they want to do when they don’t have to answer to the public. But in the end controlling information is nothing more than controlling votes.

Documents:

Coverage from The Rivereast

The Rivereast Letter to the Editor

FOIC proposed decision

FOIC proposed decision

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