BOARD OF SELECTMEN, TOWN OF RIDGEFIELD v. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION et al., SC 18343
Judicial District of New Britain
Freedom of Information Act; Municipalities; Whether § 1-225 (d) is Unconstitutionally Vague for Failing to Define "Emergency"; Whether Municipal Employee's Conduct was Grounds for Holding Emergency Meeting; Whether Penalty Imposed for Non-Compliance with FOIA was Unduly Harsh. In early 2006, the town of Ridgefield began a search for a new fire chief on learning of its fire chief's impending retirement. Among those interested in the job was the assistant fire chief and second in command in the fire department, Anthony Gaeta. Shortly after learning that he would not be selected as the new fire chief, Gaeta engaged in heated arguments with the town's public works director and with its first selectman. In the first exchange, Gaeta used foul language in front of a group of children; in the second, Gaeta threw papers at the first selectman, moved from behind his desk towards him and threatened to kill him. The morning after Gaeta's altercation with the first selectman, the town's board of selectmen convened an emergency meeting to discuss Gaeta's conduct. At that meeting, it was agreed that Gaeta would be asked for his resignation and that, if he did not agree to resign, he would be placed on unpaid administrative leave. Claiming neither option was acceptable to him, Gaeta announced that he would retire, and the board voted to accept his resignation. Gaeta then filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) in which he alleged that, in holding the meeting, the town had violated General Statutes § 1-225 (d) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 1-225 (d) provides that, except in case of emergency, notice of a meeting of a public agency shall be posted not less than twenty-four hours before the meeting. The FOIC declared the board's action in accepting Gaeta's resignation void, determining that the board had violated § 1-225 (d) by (1) conducting an "emergency" meeting for a non-emergency purpose, (2) failing to file notice of the meeting twenty-four hours beforehand, and (3) conducting business at the meeting other than that listed on the agenda. The board of selectmen now appeals from a trial court judgment upholding the FOIC's decision and dismissing its appeal. The board claims that § 1-225 (d) is unconstitutionally vague in that it does not provide fair warning as to what constitutes an emergency and that, accordingly, it could not have anticipated that the meeting at issue would be deemed to fall outside the purview of the statute. Alternately, the board contends that Gaeta's violent workplace conduct created an emergency as contemplated by § 1-225 (d). Finally, the board contends that the FOIC's action in voiding the results of its meeting contravenes prior FOIC decisions and constitutes an unduly harsh penalty for its ostensible failure to comply with § 1-225 (d), especially where Gaeta was given notice of the meeting and an opportunity to attend.