NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s Police Commission has been found to be in violation of the law by a state agency, but the only penalty imposed could be described as a slap on the wrist.
Agendas for special meetings held by the commission on July 6 and July 11 “did not fairly apprise the public” about what would be happening in its published agendas, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled on April 10, urging Norwalk not to let it happen again. The rest of the complaint filed by Diane Cece was denied. Her complaint about not being able to speak at the meetings was found not to have merit, as was her complaint that minutes had not been posted on the city’s website.
The complaint stemmed from a hot-button issue for many Norwalk residents – the appointment of a new Norwalk Police chief and a new deputy chief. Cece was among those in favor of a nationwide search for a new chief. Mayor Richard Moccia was adamantly opposed to that idea.
Cece protested when commissioners called an executive session at the July 7 meeting, and said she had been treated disrespectfully. The meeting was never posted in the calendar on the city’s website; the agenda was posted in accordance with FOIA statute, but it wasn’t obvious that a meeting would be happening.
Cece asked for civil penalties for the violations, but the commission only ordered, “Henceforth, the respondents shall strictly comply with the notice requirements” of the FOIA law.
Cece drove to Hartford three times for hearings with the commission. Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr did not arrive for the first one, on Jan. 8. The rescheduled hearing on March 31 did make it into his appointment book. Commissioner Kathleen Ross listened to arguments from both sides and issued a recommendation for the rulings listed above.
The commission provided a recording of the final hearing, when the commission voted on the recommendation, to this reporter. Cece pleaded her case, citing “a documented and long and chronic history of non-compliance of FOIA law,” as she asked the commission for a tougher result: training in FOIA-compliance for commission chairmen and staff.
She tried to settle for training for Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan.
“The violations … were not by a new department head or a new staff member who hadn’t been properly trained, but in fact they were by the city’s corporation counsel, the person who is the lead attorney for the city. He is often charged as the person who does the FOI training,” she said. “In light of the violations occurred with Mr. Maslan, that he is the person who does the training itself, it left me a little disheartened that the ruling for the remedy just said, ‘Henceforth don’t do it again.’”
Commissioners said Cece hadn’t mentioned Maslan prior to that hearing. Because he wasn’t named in the complaint, the commission said the best it could do was train the police commission.
A commissioner also commented that there was no record of complaints against the city of Norwalk, and therefore no reason to impose training.
“The chronic violations don’t result necessarily in complaints,” Cece said. “For average people to do this … The first time they complained they missed the hearing, so I had to come back, etc. Ultimately what ends up happening is, after weeks or months of the complaints” being made in Norwalk and not to the state, they get remedied or people drop them because they’re not willing to put in the time and effort.
Cece agreed that if she ever filed a complaint again she would remind the commission of the April 10 ruling.
The ruling is attached below.