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State agency dismisses Smirniotopoulos FOI complaints

Donna Smirniotopoulos speaks to the Norwalk Common Council Planning Committee in February, in City Hall.

Updated, 10:45 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission last week issued decisions in three complaints filed by Norwalk critic Donna Smirniotopoulos nearly a year ago.  All three complaints were dismissed, with a finding that Norwalk did not violate the law, and a city attorney has described the process as extremely time consuming.

Smirniotopoulos in one complaint accused Norwalk of refusing to disclose the name of a candidate for the Zoning Commission before the nomination was sent to the Common Council. In the others, she said Norwalk had denied her access to public records.

In the first two complaints, the Commission affirmed Norwalk’s contention that it had no records to disclose.

In the third, Smirniotopoulos asked for records pertaining to the nomination of “Frank Martini” as a Zoning alternate.

“Those who advise the mayor appear to support the practice of withholding the identities of persons in consideration for land use appointments until agendas are posted for the Common Council meetings at which their appointments will be approved, whether or not there are records responsive to FOI requests,” Smirniotopoulos wrote to a Commission Attorney in May.  “…   It is in the public interest for the citizens to know well in advance not only what names are under consideration but what the mayor’s process (or lack thereof) is.”

“It is people like me … who suffer as a result of an opaque process that results in land use boards populated by those who do not understand the work requirements,” she wrote.

Smirniotopoulos-Spahr emails with FOIC May 2018

The name of the man Smirniotopoulos referred to as “Frank Martini” was actually Frank Mancini, which led to a delay, the Commission wrote, affirming that it was not the fault of City officials.

“We are fully aware of our responsibility to provide the public with access to records,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr wrote Monday. “We have no interest in withholding these records. I find that if we do not get a document to a demanding person as quickly as they wish that they somehow believe that there is some sort of nefarious plot afoot.”

Spahr, who handles “contentious” FOI requests for the City, said he and then-Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King  “spent dozens upon dozens of hours” on the complaints, traveling to Hartford for the hearings.

Smirniotopoulos “constantly sends emails out and seeks responses at all times and on weekends,” and “continued to argue that you do not capitalize the letter M in the word Mayor. She was upset whenever I referred to the mayor as the Mayor,” he wrote.  Spahr explained that he set up an auto response to Smirniotopoulos’ emails because “it got too crazy.”

Spahr auto reply to Donna 19-0320

Spahr auto reply to Donna aol accounts 19-0320

“She would have several threads pending at the same time and it was difficult to keep track of. This way there would be a response,” he wrote. “… I cannot interrupt my other work to constantly address her demands.”

Lola Falana, circa 1972. (CBS/public domain)

Smirniotopoulos, who is CNNA (Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations) Provisional Executive Committee Chairperson and leader of Friends of Quintard (FoQu), has sent Spahr emails from various accounts, including one bearing the name “Lola Falana,” he wrote.

“This just seems odd,” he concluded.

Smirniotopoulos called the Lola Falana alias a “sobriquet for my own amusement.”

“A multi-talented dancer, singer, actress, and all-around entertainer, Falana was a sexy superstar,” Encyclopedia.com reports. “Under the tutelage of blues singer Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, and Wayne Newton, Falana became, for a time, the highest-paid female performer in the history of Las Vegas.”

35 comments

M. Jeffry Spahr March 21, 2019 at 9:26 am

Within the Law Department I am assigned to handle the more contentious FOI matters. The City understands that it is important to respond to FOI requests in a “reasonably prompt” fashion. The FOI has issued an Advisory Opinion 51 that discusses the obligation of the Agency and calls upon the requesting party to exercise patience and to understand that City employees are required to balance a great number of responsibilities and assignments. Specifically, the Advisory Opinion states as follows:

“In weighing these and other factors, common sense and good will ought to be the guiding principles. The Commission believes that if an agency politely explains to a person seeking access to records why immediate compliance is not possible, that person will most likely understand and appreciate the agency’s obligation to balance its duties as custodian of public records with its other duties. And as long as it appears to that person that the agency is not trying to unduly delay compliance, or impose unnecessary restrictions, he or she will most likely try to accommodate the agency. Indeed, it has been the Commission’s experience that when an agency is sensitive to the needs of the requester, in most cases the agency is able to meet such person’s essential requirements in a manner that also permits it to satisfactorily perform its other functions. In the final analysis, it is the Commission’s opinion that this rule of reason and courtesy, if implemented, should eliminate the vast majority of potential conflicts between a citizen’s right to timely access to public records, and an agency’s duty to comply while processing other important business”.

Unfortunately, this sentiment does not always come to fruition as demonstrated by the email I received first thing this morning:

“From: Donna Smirniotopoulos [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Thursday, March 21, 2019 8:33 AM
To: Spahr, Jeff
Cc: Yerinides, Christopher
Subject: [BULK] Re: Additional email
Importance: Low

Dear Motherfxxxer,”

The City of Norwalk will continue to comply with the FOI Laws and respond to requests for records in a reasonably prompt fashion. It is hoped that the Community understands that we also have a great number of other obligations and responsibilities to attend to as we represent the entire City of Norwalk. It is hoped that the rule of reason and courtesy will prevail.

Bridget P March 21, 2019 at 12:05 pm

It is refreshing that we have citizens such as Donna who are passionate about the community and for the advocacy of transparency regarding the city’s state of affairs. If only Norwalk had more public advocates what a better place this would be. . . On a side note and in all fairness, I believe NoN should offer Donna S. a rebuttal to this story. I am convinced there is more to meet the eyes on this one.

Thank you Donna for your community advocacy!

Jason Milligan March 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm

Holding government accountable is lonely and exhausting, especially this administration.

I commend all those who dare to take on the Norwalk machine.

Donna
Nancy
Others

Keep it up. We all benefit from the truth.

Rusty Guardrail March 21, 2019 at 1:39 pm

Donna Smirniotopoulos digs for the truth, to the benefit of those who care to pay attention. Among other matters, it was she who unearthed factual evidence of Rilling’s culpability for the grievous harm wrought by Firetree.

Geez March 21, 2019 at 6:53 pm

Politics does make strange bedfellows. If the CNNA is ok with the email sent this morning then they don’t represent the City. They should immediately censure anyone who uses that kind of language, much less in a formal document to the City. Has discourse really degenerated to this degree?

DONNA Smirniotopoulos March 21, 2019 at 7:56 pm

Hearing Officer Victor Perpetua specifically dismissed Mr. Spahr’s attempts to invoke Advisory Opinion 51 in this case. I have the recording. Nancy is aware of what was said because I reported this information to her last night though she has chosen not to cover that part of the story–the one in which Mr. Perpetua says the mayor lied. This is only one side of the story–the one told through Jeff Spahr’s eyes.

Anyone familiar with my experiences with this “civil” servant would completely understand the sobriquet Mr. Spahr earned for himself through his habitually contemptuous, discourteous, bullying and bloviating behavior, most of which is attached to personal animus. Just because you don’t like someone, doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. This goes double for municipal employees like Spahr. No responsible mayor/manager would put this person in charge of FOI requests.

Lisa Brinton March 22, 2019 at 6:39 am

While not condoning the use of an obscenity to Mr. Spahr, just imagine if the city cooperated with sharing publicly entitled information to taxpayers with the same degree of swiftness the above email was shared on NON? A little over an hour?

The legal obstructionist culture that prevails at city hall is very apparent, unless it involves smearing a private citizen, not on the public payroll.

Consider the following, it took a week on the witness stand for Mr. Sheehan to finally admit the Wall Street Redevelopment Plan had expired. (Only recently to have a new one passed in record speed.) How much taxpayer money was wasted there? I wonder how long it will take to get information on the total amount of taxpayer money spent in legal fees on the Milligan lawsuit associated with Poko? Nancy, have you asked yet? I’ll bet longer than an hour.

City Hall has an attitude and transparency problem when it comes to sharing information the public is entitled to regarding how it has mismanaged various land use issues. Ms. Smirniotopolous and her neighbors are all too aware of this with Firetree and the prison halfway house in their neighborhood. We also saw a glimpse of it in CC chambers last week with where the Garden Cinema fits into the Poko debacle.

In revisiting the expletive, which is more obscene – use of the word or city hall’s culture of obstructionism? paid for by taxpayers to be used against them and likely the root cause the word was used in the first place. Ironic.

Foia Lalona March 22, 2019 at 8:49 am

Despite their impressive caseload, I see that the law firm of Mosby and Smirniotopoulos is still in search of a victory. Meanwhile, the City’s lawyers are making big bucks on our dime and tweeting: #MaNGA

geez March 22, 2019 at 8:49 am

Sorry, Lisa but you are condoning it. One can make the same point w/out descending to the level of incivility. In this day and age if you’re not willing to speak out about what is beyond the pale than you don’t deserve to be mayor and I’d have to question you’re judgment working with middle school children on journalism. I have no doubt that you are better than this

Bryan Meek March 22, 2019 at 9:01 am

Where did the $900k go? Where is the paper trail required by the US Treasury when doing wire transfers in excess of $10k? Did FINCEN track the money to its final destination? Save for a few countries we have treaties to share this information. Why is it not public yet? And where did the $5 million given to POKO go? Will we ever get an accounting of our money as required by law? Where is the flashlight?

Otto Delupe March 22, 2019 at 9:03 am

@Geez – you are correct: let us not condone this base level Neanderthal attack. Lets us also not forget what Rep Rashida Tliab called our current sitting President in her opening salvo.

geez March 22, 2019 at 9:11 am

I agree with you 100%, Otto. Civility is a precondition to having any kind of discussion- obscenity and name calling doesn’t advance any argument

Adam blank March 22, 2019 at 9:12 am

I make FOI requests of the city frequently. The documents I ask for are almost always to assist clients in matters adverse to the city – and the city understands why I want the documents. I always agree to work with the City to make the requests manageable for them and have had no issues promptly getting the records. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that referring to Mr. Spahr as mutherf—-r doesn’t get your FOI requests fast tracked.

Lisa Brinton March 22, 2019 at 9:35 am

@ Adam – Agreed. You know, I have nothing but the greatest respect for you and your service to this city, but as a lawyer and former appointed official – no doubt you have a much better inside track on obtaining information than the average Norwalk resident. Historically speaking from every resident, small business and some employees I have spoken to, it would appear the city’s strategy is to simply wear folks down. What’s the old expression… ‘You can’t fight city hall…’

Geez March 22, 2019 at 10:13 am

My guess is that Lisa you are mainly talking to the disgruntled I have found the City to generally be helpful. My guess is that there hasn’t been a qualitative change in how the City handles FOI requests from administration to administration. If there has been a change it’s in the public’s expectations. That’s crazy true in school systems where the scene has become unmanageable. Lisa, I’ve heard good things about you but when you align yourself with the nabobs, naysayers and permantely disgruntled people of the world (some of whom probably are diagnosable under the DSM) than you lose your credibility. You can want change and effect change without being a ripper

Sid Welker March 22, 2019 at 10:16 am

WOW. Just WOW. This has spoiled brat written all over it. I am in complete agreement with @geez regarding the representation of the CNNA by Donna Smirniotopoulos. When you act as a sole crusader/vigilante and this type of action is done and unearthed you’re the only one affected by it. When you are trying to be Superman/Jesse James and this type of act is performed the rest of the Justice League/James Gang must look for a new leader. The CNNA will never be taken seriously with Donna on board because of actions like this as well as the public shouting incident with Nate Sumpter and countless other acts. Although she is passionate about her selective interests such as Quintard,Rilling,Quintard,Rilling,Quintard,Rilling and did I mention Quintard her wild west gun slinging antics will only roll eyes and incite ear plugs.

Lisa Brinton March 22, 2019 at 11:14 am

Geez,
You raise excellent points about the way FOIs are handled by the city and IT issues that may make searches more cumbersome than need be.

Regarding who I know. I talk to lots of people, high ranking Democrats (who don’t want to be outed) Republicans, Unaffiliates, businesses and residents from all over the city. No doubt, as this campaign heats up, there will be attempts to paint, pigeon-hole, or attack me for something somebody has said or written, by both sides of Norwalk’s political aisle.

Personally, I would NOT have put an expletive in writing to a public official, but have seen first hand ‘obscene’ efforts by the city to obstruct those who challenge the status quo, regardless of who is in power at the time.

People forget, I supported this mayor when he campaigned on P&Z reform. Now, we have some ‘funny’ stuff going on with reconciling Poko, and Firetree is not far behind. Which neighborhood will be next? When regular folks have their properties devalued or declared blighted, at the same time the city reval increases, things can get emotional. Unfortunately, it never does for the city because it’s not their money.

Geez March 22, 2019 at 11:46 am

Lisa you’re still equivocating and rationalizing. As a leader in the community you need to stand up against incivility. To some degree we are all the company we keep. The email at issue wasn’t exchanged in the heat of battle but in correspondence.

Adam blank March 22, 2019 at 11:49 am

Donna S emailed me in response to my post and she reminded me that she has been banned from posting on NON. I think Nancy ought to waive that policy when she publishes an article on Donna. Doesn’t seem fair not to let her defend herself

Michael McGuire March 22, 2019 at 12:56 pm

I agree with Adam – Let Donna Speak. There is far more to this story than bad language. We all make mistakes but throwing the “first stone” is all to prevalent these days, and misses the point.

Hello I Must Be Going March 22, 2019 at 1:29 pm

If a public official is required to release information under FOI, then the official should provide it. End of story. It shouldn’t matter who asks for it, or how they ask for it. JUST DO YOUR JOB AND RELEASE IT.

Let’s stop clutching our pearls over something that diverts from the core issue, shall we?

Bob Welsh March 22, 2019 at 4:33 pm

@Lisa Brinton

Nancy last reported on the litigation costs for the POKO lawsuit on March 15.

“Thursday’s events marked the 11th day of court hearings on the case. Legal costs to the Redevelopment Agency through Dec. 31 were $108,725.31, Sheehan said on Feb. 26. The budget statement included in the Agency’s agenda packet for this month states that the Agency spent $199,300 on legal fees through Jan. 31.”

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2019/03/milligan-seeks-to-have-lawsuit-dismissed/

Victor Cavallo March 22, 2019 at 6:16 pm

I agree with Sid Welker’s rendition of the situation and solutions. Further, if anyone aspires to a leadership position in this City, they should vehemently and *unequivocally!* condemn the use of guerilla tactics and obscenities when addressing issues with public officials, as well as shun the person using them. Association with such individuals won’t help win elections.

Nancy Chapman March 23, 2019 at 1:40 am

Donna Smirniotopoulos was offered the chance to comment for this story. She requested that her first reply not be published. As a courtesy, we are honoring her request, even though we did not agree to it in advance.

Her second and third replies, and several additional emails she forwarded, did not address the issues on which I requested a comment, which were the committee’s dismissal of all three complaints, and some information received from Attorney Spahr. If she wishes we will publish our entire Wednesday correspondence, on the condition that it will include her first reply.

I have posted Smirniotopoulos’s comment near the top of this thread, in which she writes that “Mr. Perpetua {the hearing officer} says the Mayor lied.” The Mayor did not testify at the hearing. According to an email Smirniotopoulos sent me on Wednesday, the hearing officer heard Laoise King’s testimony and remarked that the Mayor had “told a white lie”. In March 2018 Smirniotopoulos told the Mayor she wished to be appointed to the Zoning commission. The Mayor requested she submit a resume and letter of interest. King testified that the Mayor’s request notwithstanding, she didn’t believe he ever intended to consider Smirniotopoulos for the Zoning Commission — he was just being polite. “…what you’re saying is he told a white lie,” the hearing officer said.

King’s opinion was previously reported in May 2018:

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2018/05/norwalk-political-notes-election-info-zoning-fines-and-criticisms/

As reported then, King advised Smirniotopoulos via email on 4/26/18:

“For your information, the mayor seeks appointees whom he believes a) are knowledgeable about Norwalk and understand the diverse needs and interests of residents, business and visitors, b) love and believe in Norwalk and believe it is a great place to live, work and play, c) participate in public discourse in a positive and constructive manner and d) share his vision for the city’s future.
“In his opinion you possess none of these traits. Although the Mayor may be too polite to explain this to you, this is the reason you were not and will not be considered for a position on a land use body.”

Lisa Brinton March 23, 2019 at 8:38 am

@ Bob – Thanks. I imagine the bills have doubled and are closer to $500k following the trial proceedings earlier this month. Hopefully, Nancy will be able to get her hands on those invoices in a respectable amount of time.

Going back to the origin of the story – FOI requests and how the city handles them. Land use is the economic engine funding 90% of the city. As one example, if the administration felt justified pursuing its Milligan lawsuit, it might proactively inform the public from time to time with public statements. Instead, the city buries the details, like everything else, in cumbersome FOI requests.

Absent civil common council discourse and the check and balance of a two party system, where some of this information would be part of the public record, citizens have had to resort to FOI requests and fending for themselves in order to get the truth out.

Another case in point – the $15m, now $10m Innovation – Wall St West Ave Tax Credit Ordinance got tabled again last week. The public, in absence of a legislative check and balance has had to fight this ordinance on its own. FOI is the tool for getting city information, otherwise withheld from the public eye, out in the open, so people can draw their own conclusions.

Jason Milligan March 23, 2019 at 9:40 am

It is amazing that Lisa is required to take positions on issues and she is held responsible for the actions of other people.

While our mayor is allowed to hide from tough issues.

He owes us an entire explanatory statement for POKO.

Why is he not required to take a position on the Garden Cinema?

Firetree?

@Bob Welsh I believe you are 1 month off on the POKO legal bills.
The $108,000 was through Dec. For bills through Nov.
The $199k is for bills through Dec.

The total legal expense racked up to date must be $400k.

They are slow playing the bills and hiding the true cost.

M. Jeffry Spahr March 23, 2019 at 5:22 pm

We all agree that FOI requests should, will and are responded to. In case anyone is confused, the ruling was that the City did NOT violate the Act and did NOT fail to turn over records.

This all started when DS asked the Mayor to serve on a commission. In an effort to be polite the Mayor invited her to send in a resume and a cover. The ‘white lie’ was the Mayor being polite by inviting her to follow up ( when he really was not going to appoint her).
Instead of sending in the materials DS went into attack mode and demanded to see the resumes and cover letters of other applicants. In quick succession 2 FOI complaints were filed because the responses were not sent out fast enough for the D-centric applicant.
The issue is not gathering the records and getting them out. That will be done in rotation with all other duties. The problem is that there are certain nabobs of negativity who see a conspiracy under every rock. In addition, DS fills her emails with all kinds of accusations and snarky comments. They really don’t bother me and I feel a bit sorry for her, but having to read through continuous accusations is very time consuming. It’s as if we are dealing with a time vampire that is intent on sucking all the hours out of your workday preventing you from getting your other work done. If everyone could just take a step back and work together without throwing verbal sticks and rocks we can get through this. So, hit the reset button and vow to work collaboratively and this can all be done. We should all be pulling in the same direction to make our home the best it can be

Lisa H March 24, 2019 at 8:24 am

Andy Rooney once said, “I saw Erin Brockovich. Now, Julia Roberts uses the F word, too, but I thought it was artistically justified. It contributed to the plot and helped make her the character that Erin Brockovich was supposed to be.”

I agree with Mr. McGuire and others. There is far more going on here than Donna’s use of an obscenity.

Donna is a prolific writer, communicator, and advocate. She continues to dig and uncover many untruths, often at the encouragement of others who cannot, because they fear retaliation. In this case, MF was nothing more than an artistically justified salutation. It shouldn’t cloud the real issues.

The people who are asking Lisa Brinton to take sides and condemn Donna most likely aren’t voting for her, anyway. Continue to stick to the issues, Lisa.

Victor Cavallo March 25, 2019 at 8:30 pm

Donna on Zoning? There’s a book written by Dale Carnegie entitled: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It has sold 30 million copies and 6 million audiobooks and many have benefited from Mr. Carnegie’s advice on civility. I don’t believe Donna has read it. In the book, Mr. Carnegie discourages people from calling someone a M……….r, because such a tactic doesn’t exactly win friends and influence people to see things your way. Recognize that the Mayor displeased Donna by delicately declining to appoint her to the Zoning Commission (thank you Harry!) because she failed at least one prong of the four-prong test iterated by Ms. King: to demonstrate the ability to “…participate in public discourse in a positive and constructive manner.” In contrast, she’s publicly demonstrated her deficiencies in this regard, among other ways, when last year she publicly accosted and demeaned Zoning Commission Chair Nate Sumpter during a commission meeting; and for no apparent reason other than because no one on the commission was moved to put her on a pedestal after attempting to prove that the Norwalk Zoning Commission was decidedly inferior to Westport’s counterpart. I’m sure Attorney Spahr, too, has his opinions about Donna; as do I, being one of many to have suffered Donna’s poison-pen diatribes on NoN – and Facebook!

Donna’s penchant for expletives and unbridled hostility toward anyone that gets in her way would likely turn zoning meetings into Mayor-bashing bar-room brawls. I’m sure the Mayor recognized as much when making his decision.

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