Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 24, 2015

CT Supreme Court Holds Planning and Zoning Commission Violated Open Meetings Law

The dispositive issue in these appeals is whether an executive session held by the named plaintiff, the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Monroe, fell within the purview of the Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act’s “pending claims or pending litigation” exception.  The Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) initially determined that the zoning commission’s executive session was unlawful under the act.  The FOIC found that, during the executive session, the members of the zoning commission had discussed two topics that potentially warranted convening an executive session: (1) how to respond to the prior decision of the Superior Court overruling the zoning commission’s denial of Handsome’s application to extend its permit; and (2) how to address Handsome’s noncompliance with the conditions of the original permit.  The zoning commission appealed from the FOIC’s decision to the trial court, which reversed the FOIC’s decision, concluding that the zoning commission’s executive session was permissible under the act’s pending claims or pending litigation exception.  The FOIC now appeals from the judgment of the trial court, claiming that the executive session violated the act.

The court reviewed the trial court’s judgment pursuant to the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (UAPA). The specific exception at issue in the present case is set forth in § 1–200(6)(B), which allows public agencies to convene in executive session for the purpose of “strategy and negotiations with respect to pending claims or pending litigation to which the public agency … is a party until such litigation or claim has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled….”   After reviewing the language of the statute, the court concluded that the statute is plain and unambiguous and that the term “finally adjudicated” refers to the point at which a court has decided the matter in question, and that decision cannot be altered or modified on appeal. Thus, a matter is “finally adjudicated” under § 1–200(6)(B) either upon completion of an appeal to the highest possible tribunal or upon expiration of a party’s right to appeal.  The Court held that the planning and zoning commission was not justified in convening an executive session, under pending claims or pending litigation exception to Freedom of Information Act open meetings requirement, to discuss its zoning enforcement options with respect to permit holder’s original permit. At the time, there was no pending litigation regarding the permit to which the zoning commission was a party, and there was no pending or prospective litigation regarding permit holder’s alleged permit violations.

The prior Superior Court case regarding town zoning commission’s denial of permit extension was “finally adjudicated” before the commission’s executive session, within meaning of statutory exception to Freedom of Information Act open meetings requirement for meetings to discuss strategy and negotiations with respect to pending litigation that has not been finally adjudicated, and thus zoning commission was not justified under the exception in conducting executive session to discuss how to respond to the prior court decision. Executive session occurred approximately eight months after court’s decision, and 20-day period during which the zoning commission had the right to appeal the court’s decision already had expired.

Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Monroe v Freedom of Information Commission, 2015 WL 1186306 (CT 3/24/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ct-supreme-court/1694586.html


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