Westbrook Settles, Ehlert Withdraws FOI Complaint
In a settlement agreement dated Jan. 27, the Town of Westbrook acknowledged several facts and in response, former selectman Chris Ehlert agreed to withdraw three Freedom of Information Act complaints he filed. Ehlert filed the complaints with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) against the Town of Westbrook and town officials in November 2015.
“I didn’t need to take my complaints to a full FOIC hearing as long as the town acknowledged its actions. And this reaching a settlement will save the town money in legal costs,” said Ehlert.
In the agreement, the Town of Westbrook, while acknowledging events that occurred, did not admit to any intentional failure to comply with FOIC rules.
Ehlert’s first complaint was that the town had failed to respond to an FOI request from him asking it to produce documents of public bids received for the replacement of the town’s telephone system. (A new replacement phone system was approved by the Board of Selectmen last fall; a unit of Frontier Communications is currently completing the new system installation and employee training.)
In his Nov. 7, 2015 written complaint to the FOIC, Ehlert said he made three requests to obtain public information regarding the bidding process, with no success. At the time of Ehlert’s document request, he was a town selectman.
In the settlement, the town “acknowledged that through an administrative oversight that [the town] did not provide access to these documents promptly” as required by FOI rules.
Ehlert’s second and third complaints alleged that the Town of Westbrook and the Board of Finance had failed to describe with sufficient specificity the purpose of the Executive Session. As a result, he said the agenda postings were improper.
In the Board of Selectmen’s Nov. 9, 2015, meeting agenda, the Executive Session topic was described as “Employee Performance Review,” but no name or position was listed. A Board of Finance meeting agenda for Oct. 21, 2015, described that board’s planned Executive Session’s purpose even more vaguely as “Performance Review.”
Past FOIC rulings have found that executive session agenda items are considered improperly posted if there is insufficient specificity for the public to understand what was or will be discussed. The FOIC also has advised that while a name may not be required, at least a broader agenda item description should include more specifics such as the type of employee to be discussed.
The minutes of an executive session also must disclose all individuals present and those invited by the public agency holding the meeting to give opinion or testimony during the executive session.
In the FOIC settlement agreement between Ehlert and the town, with respect to the two agenda postings about executive sessions, the town acknowledged “that the Town of Westbrook had on two separate occasions ‘inadvertently posted an incomplete agenda’ not consistent with FOI rules.”