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Norwalk litigation ends with settlement, pleasing Wilson Point woman

Norwalk Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola.

NORWALK, Conn. – A Wilson Point woman says her fight with Norwalk is over, that she has been given the document she was seeking in a long fight that involved the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission.

Norwalk Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola disputes that somewhat, but agrees that a settlement has been reached that will save city attorneys from further court appearances and from writing further legal briefs.

Lynnelle Jones said Coppola handed her the appraisal of her 10 Point Road home that she had been seeking, which city officials had previously said did not exist. Coppola said she was given a draft version, which she was never entitled to under FOI rules.

“I give all the credit to the mayor,” Jones said. “I give some of the credit to the new city attorney. This city attorney did the right thing. I am very happy, they gave me the document.”

Jones took the city to court over the 2008 property assessment of her home. In September 2012, after the case was closed, she filed an FOI request for a copy of an appraisal that she said the city had paid for but not used in court.

She had looked through a folder in the tax assessor’s office and found photographs done by an appraiser who spent a day at her home, as well as a $1,500 invoice indicating the appraiser had been paid. The city denied an appraisal existed. She filed a complaint with the commission in October 2012. The commission ruled in her favor on May 22:

“… in the event that the respondents no longer maintain the appraisal, or documents and photographs related to the appraisal, described in paragraph 2.b of the findings, they shall forthwith communicate with Sheehy Associates LLC and arrange to obtain a copy of the appraisal, or documents and photographs related to the appraisal, which copy shall be provided to the complainant free of charge.”

The city appealed that decision. It was tied up in court until Coppola settled with Jones.

Jones said the appraisal she has received validates her opinion that her home was overvalued. The low end of the appraisal done for the city by Sheehy Associates is $50,000 lower than the one her appraiser did, she said. The high end of the appraisal is also $50,000 lower than the one done by her appraiser, she said.

Bill Sheehy of Sheehy Associates declined to comment.

Jones, who began the process when Mayor Richard Moccia was in office and Robert Maslan was corporation counsel, said she got the appraisal after sending Mayor Harry Rilling an email.

“I thank the new mayor for making the right decision and giving me the document,” she said.

“I simply communicated I wanted all requested documents that are subject to disclosure provided to her,” Rilling said in an email. “I’m not sure what followed after that as I left it in the hands of the law department. I’m sure they followed my instructions.”

Coppola offered this statement:

“The City provided Ms. Jones with the requested documents. Upon Ms. Jones’ receipt of the documents, she executed an Acknowledgment which confirms that:

“(1) Ms. Jones filed an FOIA action seeking to obtain a copy of an appraisal from Sheehy Associates, LLC (“Sheehy”) that was being worked on by Sheehy on the City’s behalf as part of a property tax assessment appeal that Ms. Jones filed against the City.

“(2) The City informed Ms. Jones that the Sheehy had not completed the subject appraisal, and that only Sheehy had merely prepared a draft of it at the time that the tax appeal was resolved.

“(3) FOIA ordered the City to provide a copy of the ‘appraisal or documents and photographs related to the appraisal’.

“(4) The City filed an appeal from FOIA decision on the basis that any documents in Sheehy’s file were work product documents that were not required to be disclosed at the time that the underlying tax appeal concluded.

“(5) In an attempt to resolve this matter with Ms. Jones, the City requested that Sheehy provide a copy of its draft appraisal and any other relevant documents in its file to the City, and then the City, in turn, provided copies of said documents to Ms. Jones.

“(6) The City withdrew its appeal of the FOIA decision, and the City considers this matter resolved.”

Jones said she plans to use the document to bolster her argument when she contests the latest valuation of her property.

While she is not saying much now, documents and an email obtained by NancyOnNorwalk tell a more complicated story. The settlement follows a legal brief filed by Jones in objection to a recommendation from FOIC Attorney Tracie Brown that the commission re-open its hearing to admit new evidence from the city. This stems from a non-appearance by city lawyers at the first hearing held by the commission.

Norwalk lawyers said in January that a family emergency had kept Norwalk counsel Brian McCann from attending the initial hearing, Brown wrote. “This was not explained until after the appeal to this court had been filed,” Brown wrote.

Jones said in a March 25 email to the FOIC that McCann’s only excuse to the commission on the date of that first hearing was that he “forgot.” Jones writes in the email that she has a transcript of that hearing, with notes to confirm that.

Jones also gave that account at the May 22 commission hearing.

“The excuse that the city just forgot to come to the hearing is really hard to believe,” she said. Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobson was present, arguing that the city had no document. She did not dispute the statement by Jones.

McCann did not return a Friday afternoon email asking for an explanation of the discrepancy.

Lynnelle jones FOIA Answer 02172014

Lynnelle FOI docs 032514

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