FOI Complaint filed against education board chairman – Register Citizen

By Ryan Flynn, Register Citizen

WINSTED >> A Freedom of Information complaint has been filed against Board of Education Chairwoman Susan Hoffnagle, alleging email communications from February are in violation of FOI law.

The complaint was filed by fellow school board member Ray Rabago, persons with disabilities commission chairman Art Melycher and two others.

A chain of emails sent on Feb. 19 between members of the Board of Education, members of the Board of Selectmen and Town Attorney Kevin Nelligan could constitute a meeting, depending on the ruling of the Freedom of Information Commission.

According to state statutes, all meetings must have minutes filed with the town clerk so that the public can have access to meeting details. Rabago said he asked Hoffnagle to post minutes for the email, which he said she declined to do.

Hoffnagle could not be reached for comment Monday.

“The blatant disregard of FOIA open meeting requirement, by the Chairman of the Winchester Board of Education, Susan Hoffnagle has further resulted in a violation of the public’s right to access records,” the complaint states.

The complaint requests that the commission hold a hearing to investigate the possible infraction and asks that if Hoffnagle is found to be in violation that “a strict penalty be imposed.” The complaint also asks that Hoffnagle be ordered to hold an open meeting. It asks that minutes detailing the email, or “meeting,” be produced and made available for public inspection.

“This is not the first time that the Winchester Board of Education or Selectman have come before this commission and are well aware of FOIA law,” the complaint states.

Thomas Hennick, public education officer with the Freedom of Information Commission, will serve as an ombudsman, or mediator, between the two sides. Hennick said he plans to reach out to both parties in the next few weeks.

“We’ll just have to see if they’re amenable to some sort of a settlement, otherwise it’ll go to a hearing,” Hennick said.

At a hearing, both sides would get their chance to tell their side of the story, with a hearing officer giving a final ruling, which could include penalties.

Hennick couldn’t go into too much detail, given his involvement with this particular case, but said that in general, boards should not deliberate about board business via email, phone or texting.

“We always tell people: it’s OK to disseminate information, perhaps, but you don’t want to have any discussions through those vehicles,” he said.

The string of emails, which have the subject line “Board of Education Election,” was started by Hoffnagle and went out to all seven selectmen, the eight other Board of Education members, Town Manager Dale Martin, Board of Education Attorney Mark Sommaruga and Nelligan, the attorney. Three different reporters from various publications were also copied.

Mayor Smith, Selectman Jorge Pimentel and Nelligan all replied to the initial email. The subject of the email was the legality of Richard Dutton’s appointment to the school board. Dutton replaced departed member Monique Abreu and was elected on a controversial 4-1 ballot vote.

Several selectmen and school board members immediately disputed the way this vote was conducted, with some calling it illegal. To settle things, selectmen requested the services of Town Attorney Nelligan, who would review both the election itself and board policy to determine the legality of Dutton’s appointment.

While there is some discussion of the subject matter, there is no action taken within the six emails in the chain that The Register Citizen was privy to.

Reach Ryan Flynn at 860-489-3121 ext. 345.