NORWALK, Conn. — The Common Council’s sole Republican member said he will not vote to approve any more City spending until “this City figures out how to conduct public business in public.”
Bryan Meek’s announcement Tuesday came two weeks after he and NancyOnNorwalk arrived at the Council Chambers in City Hall, expecting the meeting that had been noticed via an agenda, only to find the doors locked and no one inside. Turned out, the internet wasn’t functioning in the building and the hybrid meeting had been shifted to online only.
Meek, appointed to represent District D when the seat became available due to a retirement, had received an email and a phone call but said he’d been traveling and hadn’t gotten the information. City officials said they’d announced the change on Facebook in an effort to alert the public.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, meetings must be accurately noticed to give the public a chance to participate.
On Tuesday, Council President Greg Burnett (D-At Large) made no mention of the “consent calendar,” a list of every item on the agenda that no one opposes which ordinarily begins the voting portion of the meeting. Instead, he gave the floor to Recreation and Parks Committee Chairwoman Darlene Young (D-District B) to introduce the first item for consideration.
Meek offered to make a comment about the item, a $34,874.44 purchase of three Toro Workman GTX EFI carts through a Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) grant, then read from a prepared statement:
“Two weeks ago tonight, we authorized $6.2 million in spending during what was arguably an illegal meeting.
“Sure, Council members were notified 90 minutes prior about the internet outage at 125 (East Ave.) and also via phone message. But the public was only notified by a Facebook post on a page that maybe a few hundred people ever bother to look at frequently.
“There were no signs posted at City Hall in the lobby, nor in the vestibule out here the locked Council Chambers. The security guards knew there was no internet but were unaware that the meeting was being conducted via Zoom only and they only knew that they were not requested to unlock the Council Chambers that night.
“Anecdotally, members of the public also had difficulty accessing the Zoom meeting.
“If this isn’t illegal, then at best, it is unethical. And moreover, completely unacceptable.
“For $10 a month, I have access to Verizon’s network via hotspot. This is 10-year-old technology in my hand. How can this City not have reliable backup mechanisms to internet outages? Things happen of course, and even backups aren’t failsafe but in the past, pre-COVID, when there were issues with the simulcast of Common Council meetings they were recorded and posted to YouTube after the fact within a day or so. The meetings in Council Chambers simply weren’t scratched. Members of the public were not dependent on scanning Facebook to see if we might decide to show up either.
“This needs to stop.
“I’m sorry to lengthen your night by a few extra minutes with extra votes – ”
At that point, Burnett stopped him with an instruction to address the item, the three carts up for purchase.
Meek said his comments were related and he was almost done. “It’s required under Mason’s rules when one objects to any facet of the consent calendar. Here I object.”
He continued with his statement, “Until this City figures out how to conduct public business in public, I will not be voting in the affirmative to approve one single nickel of spend, not on tonight’s 2.3 million ask nor any money in the future in any future meeting until we get our act together.”
No Council members offered any response.
The effect of Meek’s announcement is that the ritual of a Council member reading the consent calendar is on hold. Instead, each chairperson will read the items from their Committee and everyone will vote.
Meek voted no on all the items. On one item, an approval for data share with Norwalk Public Schools, he said, “While many and several of these items have no dollars that we’re authorizing, they assume capacity in the resources that we’re paying for. I don’t know if we have capacity, or need to take on additional capacity. So my vote remains no, even though they appear to be $0.”
Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D) also voted no on the item.
“It’s not because I’m anti-data sharing,” she said. “It’s not because I think any particular entity is not good at what they’re doing. I’m a big fan of our Health Department. I think when it comes to sharing weights of elementary school students and middle schools, especially with young girls, there needs to be increased sensitivity. So that’s why I’m a no vote on this. But otherwise, I’m for the program.”
That brought the half-hour meeting to a close.
The meeting two weeks ago was similarly uneventful and also lasted half an hour. NoN is not aware of any citizens who attempted to attend in person.
Activist Diane Lauricella, who has attended many City Hall public meetings via Zoom, said she couldn’t dial in for the public comments period.
Bike/Walk Commission Chairman Tanner Thompson spoke to the Council and later told NancyOnNorwalk that he had no problem attending via the public link.
After Tuesday’s meeting, NoN asked Meek to clarify his comment, “members of the public also had difficulty accessing the Zoom meeting.”
“I heard of one who could not access electronically 2nd hand, but heard there were more,” he said.
He added, “I will not be voting for any more appropriations as long as we can’t conduct public meetings legally, but more importantly ethically and within the spirit of a free and open government.”
Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King and Mayor Harry Rilling did not reply to an 8:48 p.m. email asking if the cause of the Jan. 10 internet outage had been determined.
Rilling was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to every Council member, asking if they had a response to Meek’s comments. One replied. Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said:
“Of course, Mr. Meek has the right to request anything off of the consent calendar, as we all do.
“I for one would not be able to serve on the council if every meeting we attended was in person. We make $46 per month to do this very important job and many of us have children and our meetings are mostly held in the evenings when those children are having dinner, doing homework, and getting ready for bed, precious moments that I already miss many of because of how many meetings we attend. That $46 does not cover childcare.
“The meeting he spoke of was a one-off and the only person who showed up from the full council in person was Mr. Meek despite the fact we were all emailed multiple times and called individually. I personally did not receive one piece of communication about it being a problem except from Mr. Meek.
“I also find it interesting that when we are in person, he often does not attend and takes advantage of the virtual option as we all do from time to time. The only reason I was not in person tonight is that I have bronchitis, but whenever there is the opportunity to show up I do. I think however you can show up, you should show up, and the work should speak for itself.”