STAMFORD — Mayor David Martin said this week that he will not continue the longstanding tradition of meeting privately with the Board of Representatives’ eight-member leadership each month.
The controversial practice was the subject of several Freedom of Information Act complaints lodged by Board of Finance member Sal Gabriele and former Board of Finance Chairman Joseph Tarzia in recent years. The state Freedom of Information Commission has so far dismissed all of the complaints, which commissioners ruled were not filed properly.
The Commission dismissed Gabriele’s 2011 complaint, finding he filed it one day past the deadline for lodging grievances. Tarzia’s 2012 complaint was tossed for similar reasons in August (you can read the commission’s final decision here).
Tarzia and other critics of the private leadership meetings contend the gatherings improperly excluded the public from discussions on city business, such as board appointments and the fire services’ reorganization. Skigen and other members of the board’s leadership, however, maintain the meetings were not substantive in nature.
City Rep. Harry Day, R-13, called Tarzia’s FOI complaint a “ludicrous and time-consuming claim” and said he thinks the leadership meetings were misunderstood. He defended the gatherings in an email:
“The meetings are not secret–everyone knows we have them just before Steering on the second Monday of the month–and they are not illegal, because the only thing we discuss is setting the agenda for the month–a permitted activity under FOIA as it is currently interpreted.
“Reference to discussion of the reorganization of the city’s fire services would have related, for example, to whether or when that item would be ripe for public hearing (discussed many times, because it never made it to a public hearing). Discussion of mayoral appointees would have related to whether they had been approved (or at least interviewed) by the Republican or Democratic Committees and thus ready for consideration by the Appointments Committee in the upcoming month. Reference to clerk of the works contracts again would have related to whether they were being submitted at the right time or had been properly vetted.
“Every month we have 50-90 items on a Steering Committee agenda, which everyone has had a chance to review since the previous Friday. We meet for 35-45 minutes. Do you really think it is possible to get “substantive” in these meetings? The answer is NOT POSSIBLE. All we do is make sure each item is ready to be taken up, and that we have a clear understanding of the item. In some cases, the Mayor asks for clarity on an item that has been submitted by a Representative (or vice versa), or may feel that it conflicts with an initiative he has underway that is not (and should not) be public. So we might discuss that. In rare cases, a suggestion is made that perhaps a Committee Chair should not move an item, because it is not ready, conflicts with an initiative, or would be better introduced at a different time or as part of another item. But it remains the choice of the Committee Chair; and if he decides not to move an item, ANYBODY ELSE ON STEERING MAY DO SO. At the pre-steering meeting, the Steering Agenda NEVER CHANGES, AND WE DO NO BUSINESS OF THE CITY. At the conclusion of this meeting, we go down to the Steering Committee meeting. The Agenda is reviewed, with each Committee Chair free to move his agenda as he sees fit, and everyone else is free to make motions to move items if Chairs do not. Ultimately, the full Committee decides, and THAT IS THE FIRST TIME BUSINESS IS ACTUALLY DONE. This is the process for setting the Board Agenda each month.
“The reason the emails do not reference the actual nature of what is discussed is that it is taken for granted. “We discussed the Fire Plan” would have meant ”We discussed whether the Fire Plan would be taken up that month or not” or “We discussed when the Committee would be ready to schedule a public hearing.” It is similar to saying ”Let’s meet at Bradford’s Grill and Tavern after work.” Do you bother to say that you are planning on having drinks? No, because it is taken for granted. The same is true for any email describing a discussion of an item at Pre-Steering Leadership/Mayor meetings.”