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Stonington's disregard of FOI must stop

Published May 24. 2014 4:00AM

The Town of Stonington continues to block access to public records, particularly those that could prove embarrassing to First Selectman Ed Haberek. With a decision pending in yet another contested case, the Freedom of Information Commission needs to send a strong message that it will not tolerate continuing disregard of the state's open-government law.

To do otherwise, to continue allowing the administration to stall for months when it receives requests for access to documents, makes a mockery of the FOI law. The administration's latest delaying tactics managed to get Mr. Haberek through the November election, when voters returned him to office by a narrow margin.

First, we provide a brief recap.

Stonington refused for months to release records involving a case of workplace violence until ordered by the FOI Commission in 2011. In 2012, it took another FOI Commission order for the town to release a union grievance, clearly a public record.

Now we have the latest case of obstructionism, this one politically convenient.

On Aug. 7, 2013, in the midst of the first selectman's re-election campaign, Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas filed a request seeking access to a "harassment complaint" filed against Mr. Haberek in September 2009 by Alicia O'Neill, then the program coordinator for the Human Services Department.

Why did Mr. Wojtas not seek the document sooner? He did not know of its existence. Little wonder. Director of Administrative Services Vincent Pacileo III testified last Monday at the FOI hearing that his predecessor, George Sylvestre, kept the complaint separated in a special file, apart from personnel records. Mr. Pacileo called it a "supervisory file." Asked by the FOI hearing officer if the town is holding other documents in supervisory files, Mr. Pacileo said he did not know of any.

Sort of sounds like a secret file.

The public interest in trying to obtain the document was obvious. The first selectman faced, and still faces, a lawsuit filed by a woman who claims Mr. Haberek sent her a graphic image of a naked man using his town-issued phone. The town is a defendant as well. A claim of harassment by a former employee could suggest a pattern of inappropriate behavior, a judgment left to voters, but only if they are informed.

The administration refused to provide the 2009 complaint. Mr. Wojtas, on behalf of The Day, filed a complaint with the FOI Commission. Meanwhile, Mr. Haberek won re-election.

At last week's hearing, town attorney Thomas J. Lodregan tried gamely to defend the town's position, tossing much at the wall, none of it very sticky.

The complaint is not a matter of public concern, he contended. That's laughable.

It is a "preliminary draft or note" because the town never completed an investigation. No, it is a completed complaint.

It is, maintained Mr. Londregan, an invasion of privacy. Sorry, it is a complaint filed with a government agency by a public employee against an elected official. It is hard to find private in all of that.

In furtherance of his arguments, Mr. Londregan called Ms. O'Neill as a witness.

"I wanted Mr. Sylvestre to advise him that his behavior was inappropriate. I wanted for him to tell Mr. Haberek my concerns," she testified.

And, she swore under oath, the allegations in the complaint were true.

Satisfied that letting the first selectman know his conduct was inappropriate was enough, Ms. O'Neill withdrew the complaint a few weeks after filing it. She testified she does not want it released. Her discomfort is understandable. It does not, however, justify withholding a document of public interest.

We are confident the FOI Commission will order its release.

Meanwhile, The Day in mid-March filed a request for a transcript of all text messages, emails and cell phone numbers sent or received from Mr. Haberek's town-issued Blackberry phone in 2011 and 2012. It is, again, an effort to check the veracity of reports that the first selectman used the phone inappropriately.

Unsurprisingly, the administration has responded with excuses as to why it has been unable to comply. Mr. Wojtas and The Day have filed yet another FOI complaint.

Before anyone in town thinks about again playing the privacy card, we'd point to the town's own policies, stating, "employees may not expect or assert a right of privacy in connection with any town-owned assets those who have personal confidential matters to communicate should not use Town computers or equipment."

Provide the information, Mr. Haberek.

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