NORWALK, Conn. – An aggrieved, angry and determined Norwalk taxpayer, who has been fighting city officials, is having another day in court – unexpected though it might be.
Lynnelle Jones won her latest battle with the city over the tax assessment of her Wilson Point home when the Freedom of Information Commission ruled in her favor. But the city has appealed the decision with the Superior Court for the Judicial District of New Britain. She, the FOI commission, or their lawyers have been commanded to appear in court on Oct. 1.
All this over what Jones refers to as a “simple request for information.”
“Call it what you want, but I call this whole experience a colossal waste of taxpayer money and an example of serious mismanagement,” she said in an email.
Jones has been seeking an appraisal which she said the city was ordered to do in the course of her court case challenging her 2008 assessment. An appraiser spent a full day at her Point Road home and spent a couple of hours on a second day, she said. The city produced photographs taken by that appraiser in court, she said, but Norwalk Tax Assessor Michael Stewart served as the expert witness, rebutting an appraiser hired by Jones, Guy Rocco.
Jones also has a copy of a invoice showing the city paid $1,500 to appraiser Sheehy Associates LLC for looking at her house. Yet Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobsen told the FOI commission on May 22 that a written appraisal was never given to Norwalk. She also provided an affidavit from Stewart saying no such document exists.
Jones said she paid Rocco $750. She got a written appraisal.
The decision rendered by the full commission concludes that a report exists, which the city’s appeal says “is not supported by the substantial evidence taken on the whole record in this matter.”
The commission decision specifies that if the city no longer has a copy of the said appraisal in its file it should contact Sheehy 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 appeal argues that decision “purports to require (the city) to obtain records from a non-public agency, and to disclose documents that either do not exist, are the property of a non-public agency, or are protected from disclosure under the attorney-client privilege and/or the attorney work product doctrine.”
Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan said he could not comment on the pending litigation.
The city argues that it was denied its right to due process and fundamental fairness when that paragraph was added to the preliminary decision during the May 22 hearing. The clause is “unlawful, arbitrary and an abuse of discretion by the commission,” the appeal says, because city attorneys were not given the chance to respond to it and because the requirement oversteps the commission’s reach.
“The requirement that the plaintiffs obtain from an outside private appraiser, who was engaged by the Office of the Corporation Counsel in connection with the Complainant’s Tax Appeal, privately owned records of that appraiser, when such records were not previously turned over to the Office of the Tax Assessor or otherwise made public is contrary to the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-146r and common law,” the appeal written by Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann states.
Jones said the photo entered into court is “just one of many ‘smoking guns’” indicating that there was a written appraisal.
“The invoice didn’t say ‘advise, research, discuss,’ the invoice was for ‘an appraisal,’” she said in an email. “The City of Norwalk and the Tax Assessor filed a legal motion to delay my tax trial so they could bring in an expert, at the suggestion of at least one Judge. This Judge specifically told the City of Norwalk and Tax Assessor to get a Certified RE Appraisal, evidence for their case. A fifth grader can figure out why the ‘expert hired by the City of Norwalk for $1,500’ to appraise my property did not appear in court and suddenly there is nothing but the bill.”
Jones said she has a piece of evidence that she did not produce for the commission. The document is attached below. In it, McCann requests an extension of time so the city can “disclose its expert witness and expert appraisal report. The plaintiff has notified the defendant’s expert that he cannot perform an interior inspection of the subject premises until March 30, 2012; therefore he will need additional time to complete his report.”
Jones said the part of McCann’s letter that implies she wouldn’t let the appraiser into her home is a fabrication.
An attorney who is close to the situation, who declined to be identified, said it is common for attorneys to tell an appraiser not to put their findings in writing if the the result of an appraisal doesn’t suit their agenda. She said she told Jones this, and suggested she give up the fight as it is a waste of time and effort. The attorney said she thought the city’s position on the situation was credible, but city attorneys made a big mistake when they did not arrive for the first commission hearing on the matter.
Jones is, as she has been, outraged.
“They are ones who ignored due process!” she wrote, referring to the city’s absence at the first hearing. “This is a new first in my life, being taken to court for asking for information.”
It’s a question of right versus wrong to Jones, who said she has an advantage over most people who try to fight the city, given her her accomplished career on Wall Street, her resources, her education and her history of standing up to people in power, such as as when she walked out of Goldman Sachs.
“If I can’t stand up to these guys, no one can,” she said. “There is something wrong. This system is broken.”
She has spent more money on lawyers than she ever would have saved on her tax appraisal, she said.
“Life is about making decisions and then living with the decisions you make,” she said. “I made the decision to question my tax appraisal because I believed the city was wrong. I think the system should work. The system works when people take ownership. They don’t believe that somebody has the courage and the intelligence to stand up to them.”
Correction, 11:39 p.m. Aug. 20, date of expected New Britain court appearance was corrected, from Oct. 13 to Oct. 1.