By Eric Vo Record-Journal staff
WALLINGFORD — The state Freedom of Information Commission is expected to decide whether Wallingford Center Inc. is a public entity — and therefore covered by the Freedom of Information Act — within the next month and a half.
Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein filed a complaint with the commission in April 2014. It details why he believes Wallingford Center Inc. is a public entity and should make meeting minutes, agendas, and other documents public. Fishbein filed the complaint after WCI denied his request for meeting minutes and agendas. The organization receives $78,000 in annual funding from the town.
The commission’s public education officer, Tom Hennick, said Friday that he expects the commission to reach a decision by mid-March or early April.
“The complaint was submitted to us on the 28th of April last year and it expires on the 27th of April this year,” Hennick said.
WCI is a “private, non-profit organization whose purpose is the beautification, preservation, promotion and economic revitalization of Wallingford’s center for the benefit of all the people of Wallingford,” according to its website.
WCI President Steve Lazarus did not attend the hearing and referred questions to Richard Gee, a lawyer representing the organization. Gee did not return a call for comment.
In Fishbein’s post-hearing brief, he says WCI performs activities that were handled by town government committees in the past and that a majority of its funding is provided by the town.
In Gee’s post-hearing brief, he writes that while Fishbein’s evidence mentions services provided by the town’s Public Works Department, “he fails utterly to show that the Town government is involved in controlling, supervising or in any way regulating the actions of WCI.”
“Funding alone, without control, is not enough,” Gee wrote. “WCI is a privately incorporated organization comprised of private citizens working to improve the downtown Wallingford, an area comprised of private businesses and property owners.”
Gee adds that WCI “may be an ally of Town Government, but it is not an authority of the Town Government.”
While both parties wait for the commission to make its decision, legal maneuvers continue. Fishbein filed a motion Thursday to strike WCI and Gee’s post-hearing brief, saying it included a document that was never offered into evidence.
“In this case, the respondents chose to attach to their brief, and reference in their argument, a document … that was never entered into evidence in this matter, nor ever proffered,” Fishbein wrote in his motion. “Said document is (at the very least) un-authenticated, hearsay, without foundation, and contains unsubstantiated expert and/or legal conclusions.”
The document in question is a November 2014 letter to Fishbein from Corporation Counsel Janis Small. In the letter, Small explains that the town’s Legal Department has not provided legal advice to WCI or worked with the organization.
The hearing officer allowed the document to be stricken from the record, but not Gee’s post-hearing brief, Fishbein said.
After the hearing, Gee also objected to Fishbein’s submission of a 19-minute video as evidence. The video contained seven clips from Town Council meetings when WCI officials appeared before councilors. WCI and Gee objected to the video, contending that it didn’t provide an accurate portrayal of the organization and that the clips were edited to Fishbein’s favor.
The hearing officer ultimately overruled the objection and allowed Fishbein’s video to be admitted as evidence.
In a phone interview Friday, Fishbein declined to comment on specifics of the hearing because he and WCI are awaiting the commission’s decision. He emphasized, however, that the complaint against WCI is not a challenge to the organization’s performance in town.
“This matter is not whether or not WCI does a good job,” he said. “Rather, it’s about an open and transparent use of public funds. In my opinion, taxpayers are entitled to know the who, what and why of the use of their money.”