Dear Legal Mailbag:
I am so excited to have been recently elected to the Nutmeg Board of Education! I was then beyond elated when the board chairperson appointed me to the newly formed Social Outreach Committee and named me chair of the committee!
I worked closely with the superintendent to prepare an agenda for our first committee meeting. I was surprised and excited when all eight of my board of education colleagues showed up to participate, six of whom aren’t even on the committee. It must have been because in my enthusiasm I tagged everyone in my social media posting. The superintendent, however, did not share my excitement.
As we sat waiting for the committee meeting to start, the superintendent called me and the board chair out into the hallway with this big blue book in her hand. She cautioned us that the meeting had been posted as a committee meeting, but there we were, with a quorum of the full board in attendance. In my eagerness to start the work of the Social Outreach Committee, however, I ignored her warnings, went back into the room, and I convened the meeting. Unfortunately, as we worked through the agenda, the board members who were not on the committee did most of the talking, and they went on and on about what they wanted the committee to accomplish.
The local newspaper has now submitted a complaint to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, claiming that I presided over a meeting of the Nutmeg Board of Education that was not posted. Should I be worried?
Asking for a Do Over
Outreach Committee, you did manage to violate the Freedom of Information Act. However, as explained below, it was a self-inflicted wound, and you can avoid such problems in the future, even when a quorum of the full board attends the Social Outreach Committee meetings.
Let’s start by reviewing the applicable provision in the Freedom of Information Act, because it will give you a path forward to hold these meeting in compliance with the FOIA. As you may know, a “meeting” of a public agency occurs whenever a quorum of a multi-member public agency (such as boards of education) convenes by electronic means or otherwise to discuss or act upon matters within the jurisdiction of the public agency. Moreover, the FOIA requires that the agenda for any such meeting be posted no less than twenty-four hours in advance and that members of the public be permitted to attend such meeting (except when the public agency is properly convened in executive session).
The FOIA contemplates that a quorum of members of one public agency may attend a meeting of another public agency without posting its meeting separately:
A quorum of the members of a public agency who are present at any event which has been noticed and conducted as a meeting of another public agency under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act shall not be deemed to be holding a meeting of the public agency of which they are members as a result of their presence at such event.
Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-200(2). However, the specific wording of this provision illustrates the problem for your Nutmeg Board of Education. A quorum of members of one public agency will not be deemed to be holding a meeting of that agency “as a result of their presence at such event.” The members of the board who hijacked your Social Outreach Committee, however, were not merely present – as you report, they dominated the meeting!
In the future, a quorum of the full board may attend meetings of the Social Outreach Committee without your needing to post the committee meeting as a meeting of the board. However, you have to exercise more control as chair of that committee. If you treat the other board members as you would any other member of the public, they are indeed simply present at the meeting, and you are covered by Section 1-200(2), quoted above. That means that the other board members should sit where the public sits and should not join the committee members at the table. That also means that the other board members should have the same right to speak as you afford members of the public, no more and no less. If you take this approach, you will maintain the integrity of the meeting as that of the Social Outreach Committee, and the meeting will not function as an unposted meeting of the full board of education.
Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.