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This report was updated at 9:45 am on Monday, December 18 to reflect new information from the state Freedom of Information Commission.
For the first time in memory, the newly seated Legislative Council voted unanimously to suspend its own rules in order to move a matter of business that was not listed for action on its agenda. In doing so, a spokesman for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission initially said it appeared the panel violated a state statute related to the advance notice of agenda items.
But upon review of the documentation and minutes from that meeting supplied by the First Selectman’s office, FOIC spokesman Tom Hennick told local officials on Monday, December 18, “I believe that the motion to suspend local rule in order to take up a matter technically not on the agenda (it was on for discussion, not action) in order to take up sending the CIP to the selectmen was the equivalent of voting to add taking action on the item to the agenda.”
In a copy of written comments that were provided to The Newtown Bee, Mr Hennick added that, “for clarity, it might have been better to take two votes: one to suspend local rule and a second to add action on the CIP to the agenda, but in my opinion, the vote that was taken was more than sufficient.”
While the meeting agenda listed the item in question for “discussion only,” eight of the 12 council members eventually supported returning the previously passed town Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the Board of Selectmen and subsequently the Board of Finance for further review and possible action.
Newly elected council Chairman Paul Lundquist and First Selectman Dan Rosenthal both justified the move, saying the motion inadvertently gives the public several additional opportunities to comment on the next five years of planned capital projects and related bonding because it will now be revisited at a planned selectmen’s meeting on December 18, and during a scheduled finance board meeting December 28.
Members of the public could also comment on the CIP if it is included for discussion at an interim council meeting December 20, as well as when the council plans to review and possibly act on any recommended changes at its first meeting of the New Year on January 3.
During discussion of the motion December 6, several members expressed concern over adhering to a 60-day deadline to act on the plan that went into effect when the finance board initially moved the CIP to the council at its November 13 meeting. Mr Lundquist told The Newtown Bee that he believed using the option to waive the council rules provided the only means to expedite getting the CIP back to selectmen so they could consider and possibly make changes, get any changes to finance officials, and back to the council before the 60-day deadline had passed.
Discussion over possibly sending the CIP back to elected leaders of the new administration started with former First Selectman Pat Llodra when she and her board moved the original plan to the finance board October 2 with a request to consider sending the plan back through the process once a new administration took office. During the December 6 meeting, former finance board member and newly seated council member Kelley Johnson affirmed that her former colleagues ended up moving the CIP making no recommendations, with the shared understanding it would likely be sent through the process again.
A Public Benefit
After the meeting, Mr Rosenthal said although he did not anticipate the means by which the council ended up achieving their goal of getting the CIP back before his board at the earliest possible opportunity, he sees a public benefit to the move.
“The way that I think about it is, the public is actually benefiting from this,” the first selectman said. “I’m glad they are sending it back through. I think that was the intent of the former Board of Selectmen, and the former Board of Finance to do the same. They had to suspend their rules to send it back. I wasn’t expecting them to do that, but they were very sensitive to the time frames. I’d be more concerned if things were being moved or changed where the public was going to lose input.”
Mr Rosenthal said he fully expected the council to discuss the CIP and then move to send it back to the selectmen at the December 20 meeting, leaving selectmen to take it up at their regular meeting on January 8.
“But I guess with the 60-day clock, their concern was the council would have to act on the CIP by January 17, giving them very little time for any fact-finding,” Mr Rosenthal said.
Although Council Vice Chairman Dan Wiedemann moved to invite members of the finance board to join the council January 3 to review the CIP, that motion failed.
Revisiting the action, Mr Lundquist said he viewed the sequence of events as a problem-solving measure.
“Was there a way we could send the CIP back to selectmen before December 20, and mechanically it turned out there was a rule that could be [suspended] so we could take action on an item that was originally slated for discussion only,” Mr Lundquist said. “Suspending the rule simply permitted us to advance the process. And we still had to discuss the merits of sending it back, how scheduling might play out, whether it was the best idea to send it back to selectmen at all.”
In the end, Mr Lundquist was among the four council members who voted against sending the plan back to selectmen.
“I personally understood the value and intent to pass it back, but at the end of the day I was in favor of keeping the CIP with the Legislative Council and asking for Board of Selectmen input, rather than sending it to them. But I was in the minority camp,” the council chairman added.
Councilmen Wiedemann, Philip Carroll, and Ryan Knapp also voted against the motion.
“My concern now is there are several moving parts and it has to go across three boards now, including back to finance, special meetings may be required, and in my mind maybe all that wasn’t completely necessary,” Mr Lundquist said. “We’re still going to take action and complete the process in the time we have to do that.
The council chair said the possibility of violating state FOI law was “unintentional.”
“The greater purpose was not to circumvent public process, but to encourage and move the process along to allow selectmen to begin their review and essentially allow [the CIP] to get back to us sooner so we can have more time to spend on it,” Mr Lundquist said. “This was something that had positive intent, and to accommodate the wishes of a new Board of Selectmen.”