Members of the Shelton pension board clearly didn’t have open government in mind when they changed meeting dates, failed to file meeting minutes on time, and moved gatherings from an obvious public space and into the mayor’s office.
While the sum of the pension board’s actions were “contrary to the spirit” of the public’s right to know, only the lack of meeting minutes actually violated the law, according to Lisa Siegel, a hearing officer with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.
Siegel was the FOI Commission’s version of a baseball umpire during a “contested case hearing” prompted by a FOI complaint Feb. 23 in Hartford.
Her written decision, which is embedded at the end of this article, was formally approved by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission on May 10.
The February hearing and May final decision was prompted by a complaint by Robert Kulacz, an engineer who works for the City of Shelton.
The pension board, by the way, oversees pension and retirement funds for city employees.
Kulacz said the pension board took several steps to deliberately shield itself from public view after he showed up at a meeting in May 2016 to ask questions and raise concerns about the board’s oversight.
The pension board was supposed to meet on the third Wednesday of every month at 5:30 p.m. — a time that worked for city employees.
But after Kulacz questioned the board, the meeting schedule became unpredictable.
Its next two meetings were canceled. When they met again on July 26, the time was changed to 10:45 a.m.
The location of the meeting changed, too — from a public meeting room in Shelton City Hall to inside Mayor Mark Lauretti’s office.
The public notice for the meeting was posted July 22, which is well within the law, but Kulacz said it wasn’t enough time for employees to know it was happening. Meeting agendas after that were published with less notice — while still not running afoul of state open government rules.
The pension board also cut the public participation portion from several meetings.
Minutes for the meetings were not filed within seven days, as required by state law.
While most of the pension board’s individual actions were within the boundaries of the FOI Act, taken as a whole the behavior raised questions.
“It’s been kind of intimidating and kind of hostile at times dealing with the pension board, and frustrating we can’t see what’s going on,” Kulacz said.
The City of Shelton was represented in the Feburary FOI hearing by attorney Ramon Sous.
At the hearing, Sous pointed out the FOI Act doesn’t require public agencies to have public comment sessions during meetings, or schedule meetings at specific times.
He said meeting minutes were filed late because the city is having “a staffing problem with the pension board as far as getting somebody to transcribe the minutes.”
“We do acknowledge they were filed late,” Sous said at the hearing.
Siegel, the FOI hearing officer, said Shelton’s pension board violated the law by failing to file meeting minutes on time.
But the other moves were all within the law, shady as they were.
“Although the respondents did not violate the letter of the FOI Act with respect to most of the complainants allegations, the respondents’ actions clearly demonstrate an intent to impede rather than to foster transparency,” Siegel wrote, “and are contrary to the spirit of the (FOI) Act.”
An ordinance calls for the board to have five members — the mayor, the city’s finance director, and three others to be appointed by the mayor.
At the moment, the board’s only members, according to the city’s website, are Mayor Mark Lauretti, Finance Director Paul Hiller, and Christopher Gallo.
“I have no reaction,” Mayor Mark Lauretti said of the FOI Commission’s decision.
He said there are no plans to change the way the pension board operates.
He said the city will work on doing a better job complying with open government laws, echoing comments he made earlier this year about the planning commission’s chronic tardiness with respect to filing records of its meetings.
The mayor said the pension board’s actions weren’t retaliatory, but reflected staffing problems at City Hall.
“When people don’t get their way about things they say a lot of stuff,” he said. “If one is really interested they’ll look at the history and the track record and decide for themselves what the intent is.”
Kulacz said that dealing with the city’s pension board “wasn’t a very positive experience.”
“Frankly, they kept (city employees) out of the loop,” he said. “The way the Pension Board treated the people who attended meetings and the lack of transparency was extremely disappointing.”
“They had their agenda planned and they wanted to do what they wanted to do,” Kulacz said.
He said there’s essentially nothing more to be done. Asked if has any plans to pursue the case further, Kulacz said no.
“It was despicable how the city treated its employees in regards to the changes made to the retirement plan and the investment of our retirement account assets,” Kulacz said.