MERIDEN — A Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer concluded the city’s School Readiness Council violated state transparency laws dating back several years and recommended members of the council complete training on FOI compliance.
In a preliminary report dated Dec. 6, hearing officer Valicia Dee Harmon wrote that the School Readiness Council violated FOI laws by failing to publicly notice and produce minutes for meetings, including a meeting in June at which the council cut over $500,000 in funding from city daycare programs.
The Record-Journal filed a complaint with the FOI Commission in July contending the readiness council failed to meet FOI requirements of a public agency by not notifying the public of the meeting in advance or producing a record of votes for the June 20 meeting. The FOI Commission is expected to vote whether to adopt Harmon’s draft decision at a meeting on Jan. 9.
City Manager Tim Coon said Tuesday that members of the readiness council plan to complete the training recommended by Harmon.
“It was pretty clear what the decision was and that the training needed to be done,” Coon said of Harmon’s draft decision. “We’ll comply and complete the training. It’s a no-brainer.”
The School Readiness Council is comprised of 15 government officials and is co-chaired by Mayor Kevin Scarpati and Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni. The city did not dispute that the council qualifies as a public agency and is required to meet FOI requirements, Harmon wrote in her report.
While the complaint focused on the readiness council’s failure to notice and produce minutes for the June 20 meeting, Harmon wrote in her report that the council, which formed in 1998, “has not been following the requirements of the FOI Act seemingly since 2014 (and perhaps even before 2014).”
The city’s School Readiness Coordinator, Jennifer Baglin, testified at a hearing that she “was never informed that the School Readiness Council was required to comply with the FOI Act” since she was hired in 2014
Harmon wrote that while Baglin, the council’s secretary, was not aware the body was subject to FOI requirements, other government officials that sit on the council should have known.
“It is found that the School Readiness Council is a 15-member council comprised of various government officials including the mayor for the city of Meriden, a City Council member, and a superintendent — to name a few,” Harmon wrote in her report. “It is found that any one of these officials should have realized that the School Readiness Council was not in compliance with the state’s FOI laws.”
Upon learning the readiness council failed to follow FOI requirements for the June 20 meeting, Baglin issued an agenda for an Aug. 20 meeting, where the council repeated its discussion of the funding cuts to the daycare programs and took a second vote in public.
At the June 20 meeting, the readiness council voted to cut $553,288 in funding for 62 School Readiness daycare spaces in the Women and Families Center's School Readiness Program,
The decision effectively laid off WFC Director of Childcare Karen Yorker and 10 teachers at the facility.
Following that action, the Women and Families Center accused the readiness council of taking the vote in secret, an accusation the city denied at the time.
"We have formally asked for such a discussion since the decision was made at a meeting that was not announced to the public and was held in secret," the center wrote in a statement in June. “Had the School Readiness Council demonstrated greater transparency and open communication, this situation could have been avoided. We believe the Council's decision is wrong and may be illegal. We are considering our options."
The readiness council voted to cut the funding in public at the meeting on Aug. 20 which lasted 12 minutes, according to minutes from the meeting.
Prior to the Record-Journal’s complaint, the city’s website did not contain any information, including agendas and minutes, or even a mention of the School Readiness Council.
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