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Schools Spar With City Hall Over Donation Form, Private Meeting

by Ethan Fry | Jul 7, 2016 8:10 pm

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Posted to: Ansonia, Your Right To Know

photo:ethan fryAnsonia’s Board of Education met behind closed doors Wednesday to talk about a school donation form sent to city residents with this year’s tax bills.

Asked why the discussion had to exclude members of the public, school officials said they were protected by attorney-client privilege since they met with their lawyer.

But the city’s lawyer said that rationale doesn’t wash — and said the school board’s “executive session” was therefore illegal.

The Form

The form — soliciting donations for the city’s public schools — says residents can designate a gift to go to a specific school or program.

The document was sent out last week with the city’s tax bills.

The form got mixed reviews on social media over the weekend.

Some residents complained that they already pay enough in taxes — why does the city want them to send extra money to schools?

Article continues after the document.

Ansonia School Donation Form

The form seemed to rub some people the wrong way in the wake of a budget season that saw school officials plead for more money from an administration that wanted to prioritize cutting taxes above everything else.

In addition — this year’s budget process began with a very public falling out between Mayor David Cassetti and William Nimons, the school board’s president.

During public hearings on the budget, many residents said they’d be happy to pay more in taxes to provide more support to the city’s schools.

City officials said that public outcry led them to create and send out the form with tax bills so that people who said they’d give more money to the school district could do so.

Click here to read more about the budget.

Executive Session

The Board of Education had its regular monthly meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act mandates that public agencies — like Ansonia’s Board of Education — conduct their business in public.

But the law grants a series of narrow exceptions allowing public agencies to discuss certain things behind closed doors, or in “executive session.”

Those exceptions are:

  • individual officers or employees (unless the person to be discussed asks the discussion to be public)
  • strategy concerning pending claims or litigation
  • security matters
  • real estate deals

The school board’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting listed “School Donation Form/BOAT Meeting” as one of the items for discussion in executive session.

Is This Legal?

Prior to the meeting, the Valley Indy questioned how the scheduled closed-door discussion complied with state law.

The Freedom of Information Commission has ruled repeatedly that meeting agendas, in addition to saying what will be discussed in executive session, must also give the public a reason why they’re being shut out of a public meeting.

After seeing the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, the Valley Indy called school board President William Nimons and asked why the board planned to talk about the form behind closed doors.

A reporter noted that a form soliciting donations doesn’t appear to fall under one of the exceptions listed in the FOI Act.

“You’re right,” he said.

But he added that the school board’s lawyer, Frederick Dorsey, had asked for the discussion.

“The attorney wants to talk to the full board about it,” Nimons said.

The Valley Indy then e-mailed Dorsey asking for his rationale.

He said the executive session discussion would include “matters covered by the attorney client privilege.”

The FOI Act says that “An executive session may not be convened to receive or discuss oral communications that would otherwise be privileged by the attorney-client relationship if the agency were a nongovernmental entity unless the executive session is for a purpose explicitly permitted.”

In other words, executive sessions must still be limited to one of the narrow exceptions listed in the FOI Act — even if a lawyer offers his opinion on something.

Before voting to exclude the public during Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the donation form, school board member John Izzo objected.

“I don’t believe that falls under the purview of executive session material,” Izzo said. “I don’t believe it belongs on the agenda for executive session. Everybody’s already seen it. They know about it.”

Dorsey, the lawyer, told Izzo that “what’s on the form is not the point of the executive session.”

Izzo noted the meeting agenda listed only “School Donation Form/BOAT Meeting.”

“This form has gone out. The form has been mailed to every taxpayer in the city of Ansonia,” Izzo said. “They have the form.”

“But the taxpayers haven’t received my opinion with regards to the legalities that are involved,” Dorsey replied.

After discussing the form as well as some union and non-union contracts for about 45 minutes, the board returned to public session, where the board’s secretary, Fran DiGiorgi, said the school board would be releasing a prepared statement about the form.

Izzo objected again.

Article continues after the video.

After the school board adjourned the meeting, the Valley Indy asked Nimons about the board’s reasons for going into executive session.

Nimons referred a reporter to the unpublished prepared statement DiGiorgi alluded to after the executive session.

“What you may want to do is just wait until the public statement comes out,” Nimons said. “It will be coming out pretty quick.”

Click here to read the statement, sent to the Valley Indy by the superintendent Friday morning, in which the school board distances itself from the solicitation sent on its behalf.

The Valley Indy asked Nimons about whether the district had an issue with the city’s plea for donations.

“We didn’t approve it,” he said.

But John Marini, the city’s corporation counsel, released several e-mails Thursday he said he e-mailed Nimons and Superintendent Carol Merlone the afternoon of June 4 asking “Is the form OK?”

“I like the form,” Nimons wrote back about two hours later.

“I have no objection but do you know of any other public schools that do this?” Merlone replied.

Article continues after the e-mails.

Ansonia E-Mails

Marini said he took the replies from Nimons and Merlone to mean it was OK for the city to send out the forms with tax bills.

But school officials said the form was not explicitly authorized by the full Board of Education.

City Hall jumped the gun, school leaders said.

In an email sent over the weekend, Merlone says Marini acted unethically.

“Where is the authorization from the BOE,” she wrote Saturday (July 2). “Because I said that I did not object but wanted the names of other districts that do this does not give the city the authority to override the BOE. The city appears to want to do board business and Attorney Marini knows that is unethical.”

Marini said it’s the school board that acted wrongly — by holding an illegal executive session.

“It’s not a recognized privilege that would allow the board of a municipality to go into executive session,” he said. “The public and even the city have a right to listen to and potentially participate in the discussion over a plan to solicit charitable donations for the Board of Education.”

He said Dorsey’s “attorney-client privilege” explanation doesn’t jive with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

If it did, he said, any public agency could discuss anything secretly just by asking a lawyer about it.

“That’s not a privilege that allows a municipality to go into executive session,” Marini said. “If that were true then my opinion on everything at the Board of Aldermen meetings would allow us to go into a two-hour, two-and-a-half hour executive session. That’s just not how the law works.”

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