Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Over two years town has spent $13,000 on freedom of information matters

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, November 20, 2009 12:04 PM EST

VERNON — The town has paid nearly $13,000 in legal expenses to its town attorneys — mainly Rockville lawyer Martin Burke — as a result of freedom of information requests filed from early 2008 to now.

Moreover, much of the $12,798 has been spent reviewing or challenging mundane, non-controversial requests such as motor vehicle grand lists, meeting minutes, employee offer letters, and job descriptions.

The fees were disclosed during the Town Council’s meeting Tuesday at the request of Republican Councilman Mark Etre. The report includes every freedom of information request made to the town since 2008, shortly after Mayor Jason L. McCoy took office, and includes town employee costs and legal fees connected to each request.

McCoy, a Republican who also owns a local law practice, said Thursday that the legal fees are a necessary cost to review requests, which most go through Burke who specializes in freedom of information law.

“If there’s a question, or we’re not totally sure about it, or we have to say, ‘No,’ we’re going to let an attorney look at it,” McCoy said.

Some of the noteworthy requests in the report include:

• In both February 2008 and 2009, Matthew Tagley, of Tax Date Solutions, requested the town’s 2008 motor vehicle grand list. The town has spent $750 in legal fees on that request.

• In November 2008, Tracy Drive resident Fred Goff requested Inland Wetlands Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission meeting minutes and approval letters, as well as public hearing minutes and town memos to a professional contractor. The town spent $1,500 in legal fees on that request.

• In March, the Journal Inquirer requested the mayor’s e-mail correspondence from January and February. The town has spent $2,081 on this request, which is still pending.

Recently, Democratic Councilman Michael Winkler requested salary information about McCoy and all billings to Town Attorney Hal Cummings along with other correspondence. The town initially complied with all of the items in the request except for the legal fees, claiming they were exempt due to lawyer-client privilege.

That exemption was dropped following a meeting with the state Freedom of Information Commission this month, and McCoy said the town intends to comply with the request for the billings.

McCoy said the $1,800 spent on legal fees associated with that request would not be necessary if council members — Winkler specifically — would ask for information and accept those items in executive session.

The council is “entitled to these things in executive session,” McCoy said. “They should go through the channels that a council member should go through.”

When reached for comment, Winkler said not one of his requests deals with issues that require discussion in executive session.

“Mayor McCoy uses executive session to try to keep people from talking about things he doesn’t want them to talk about,” said Winkler, who has filed nine freedom of information requests since 2008 according to the report.

McCoy defended the use of executive session, arguing that sensitive issues, such as employee personnel files, require confidentiality.

But no one has requested access to an employee personnel file, according to the report given to the council.

State law allows documents to be discussed in executive session when they are not public or contain information about litigation strategy, land purchases, or security issues.

Winkler said McCoy “is using executive session to try to make things that are public, secret.”

McCoy said the town aims to reduce its legal costs associated with freedom of information requests.

On Tuesday, Town Administrator John Ward told the council that freedom of information issues are “a bulk” of the town’s legal expenses.

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