NORWALK, Conn. — The Oak Hills Park Authority met Wednesday evening, in secret, a not-too-unusual executive session – an act that may be illegal.
The agenda for the Authority’s meeting included an executive session to discuss the next year’s budget. NancyOnNorwalk objected to that plan as not being legal under the Freedom of Information Act. Chairman Carl Dickens said the Authority, an independent body, had always discussed budgets in an executive session.
NoN said that if the budget were discussed in an executive session, a complaint would be filed with the Freedom of Information Commission.
(6) “Executive sessions” means a meeting of a public agency at which the public is excluded for one or more of the following purposes: (A) Discussion concerning the appointment, employment, performance, evaluation, health or dismissal of a public officer or employee, provided that such individual may require that discussion be held at an open meeting; (B) strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation to which the public agency or a member thereof, because of the member’s conduct as a member of such agency, is a party until such litigation or claim has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled; (C) matters concerning security strategy or the deployment of security personnel, or devices affecting public security; (D) discussion of the selection of a site or the lease, sale or purchase of real estate by the state or a political subdivision of the state when publicity regarding such site, lease, sale, purchase or construction would adversely impact the price of such site, lease, sale, purchase or construction until such time as all of the property has been acquired or all proceedings or transactions concerning same have been terminated or abandoned; and (E) discussion of any matter which would result in the disclosure of public records or the information contained therein described in subsection (b) of section 1-210.
Section 120b states:
(b) Nothing in the Freedom of Information Act shall be construed to require disclosure of:
(1) Preliminary drafts or notes provided the public agency has determined that the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure;
(2) Personnel or medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of personal privacy;
The Statute also states:
(f) A public agency may hold an executive session as defined in subdivision (6) of section 1-200, upon an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of such body present and voting, taken at a public meeting and stating the reasons for such executive session, as defined in section 1-200.
The Authority was not trying to do “below board” or “sideboard,” Dickens said in an afternoon phone call, 50 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. “We don’t get city funding.”
The City has restructured the Authority’s debt three times. Most recently, in February 2019, the City dropped the interest rate to zero.
There are “no secrets,” Dickens said. “It’s a battle every year to keep the lights on,” and the Authority just wanted to discuss things like employee salaries privately. It’s a Special Meeting, a working session to discuss the budget.
He goes in front of the Common Council Finance Committee every month to go over the Authority’s finances, he said.
NancyOnNorwalk said it wasn’t the budget information that was the issue, it was the Freedom of Information requirements for an executive session and the public’s right to attend the meeting, albeit virtually.
OHPA Attorney Randall Avery did not respond to two emails asking for a legal justification for the executive session.
Late Wednesday evening, Dickens said that the Authority did meet via Zoom. The budget passed 6 to 1.
There are minutes available of the meeting, Dickens said. “Yes we can post them, there is nothing to hide here.”
You can watch the Norwalk Parking Authority on the City’s YouTube channel, but there are no YouTube videos of Oak Hills Park Authority meetings.OHPA members “feel funny regards video,” Dickens said.
Dickens became chairman in July 2019, according to meeting minutes, taking the role after Jerry Crowley departed. He is scheduled to appear before the Council Finance Committee on Thursday evening.
Although Dickens said the Authority has “always” discussed the budget in executive session, NancyOnNorwalk did not find any 2019 agendas with “discuss budget” as a reason for an executive session.
Recent agendas have featured these reasons for executive sessions:
- June 3, 2020: “To discuss personnel matters of staff”
- Feb. 20, 2020: “Restaurant and Tennis Updates”
- Dec. 19, 2019: (no explanation)
- Nov. 21, 2019: (no explanation)
- Oct. 17, 2019: “Discussion will center around Tennis, Restaurant, and Supporters of OHP.”
- Sept. 19, 2019: “Discussion will center around Tennis, Restaurant, and Supporters of OHP.”
- July 18, 2019: “discuss restaurant status – any and all outstanding license agreements – any and all RFP’s”
- June 20, 2019: “discuss restaurant status”
- Jan. 17, 2019: “update on lease with City”
- June 19, 2018: (no explanation)
- April 23, 2018: (no explanation)
- March 15, 2018: (no explanation)
- Feb. 22, 2018: (no explanation)
- Jan. 18, 2018: (no explanation)
Then there are these items:
- Jan. 16, 2020: “Executive Session if needed”
- Aug. 15, 2019: “No Executive Session unless something comes up during the meeting”