From left, RTM members Dick Lowenstein, Sal Liccione, Kristen Schneeman and Peter Gold. / Photo by Thane Grauel.
From left, RTM Transit Committee members Dick Lowenstien, Sal Liccione, Kristen Schneeman and Peter Gold. / Photo by Thane Grauel.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — A preliminary discussion of the Westport Transit District budget for the next fiscal year was detoured this week by concerns officials might have run afoul of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Westport Transit District Director Peter Gold, while detailing the next fiscal year’s spending plan to the Transit Committee of the Representative Town Meeting on Wednesday, said First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker had assembled a group to determine whether or not the local agency should merge with a neighboring district, Norwalk or Bridgeport, or continue operations on its own.

The state, he said, is pressuring the town to consolidate.

“Jen Tooker put together a study group …,” said Gold, who also is an RTM member from District 5 and committee member.

“Who’s that group, when was this done?” asked Sal Liccione, an RTM member and Transit Committee member from District 9.

“If you wait a second, I’ll tell you,” Gold replied. “Jen Tooker put together a study group. Jim Foster from the Board of Finance, [Finance Director] Gary Conrad, [Assistant Town Attorney] Eileen Flug, to start looking at issues …”

“Tom Kiely” [the town’s operations manager], added Transit Committee Chairwoman Kristin Schneeman, District 9, also has been meeting with the study group. It was clear Gold also is a member.

“To start looking at these issues, we met informally once, and informally again after the Board of Finance, to debrief, we’ve had some discussions,” Gold said.

“I think there’s legalities in this situation, under Freedom of Information,” Liccione said.

‘I think there’s legalities in this situation, under Freedom of Information.’

RTM member sal liccione

The state’s Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to post notices of meetings, agendas and minutes, and to hold meetings in public, except in very limited circumstances.

“Actually, there are three elected officials at that meeting so it is a violation of the Connecticut Freedom of Information law,” Jennifer Johnson, a former RTM member and previous Transit District director, said from the audience.

“You’re in violation of federal law, and state law,” Johnson said.

‘It’s no different than if [Tooker] meets with the Public Works Department or the Police Department or whatever, but you can take that up with her,” Gold said.

‘It’s no different than if [Tooker] meets with the Public Works Department or the Police Department or whatever, but you can take that up with her.’

Transit director/rtm member peter gold

“I’d like to point out this is coming up 10 months after she made a commitment at the RTM budget in May of 2022 to do something before the next budget hearing,” said Dick Lowenstein, a Transit Committee member from District 5, apparently referring to Tooker. “Here we are on the cusp of the next budget and we’re finally forming a task force.”

“The purpose is to understand what the implications are for Westport …” Schneeman said.

“And also make recommendations,” Liccione said.

“Where does it say make recommendations?” Gold asked. “What are you reading?”

Liccione pointed to page 4 of Gold’s Transit District presentation.

A page of the Transit District's budget presentation.
A page of the Transit District’s budget presentation.

Under the heading of “State Legislation Impacts Transit Planning” a bulleted item stated “The First Selectwoman put together a group to examine these issues and make recommendations.”

“That’s my language, it may or may not be her language,” Gold responded.

‘You are regulated not only by state but federal laws because you are a transit district and so you have to make sure that, as a matter of public policy you’re addressing, that these meetings are actually notified to the public,” Johnson said.

‘You are regulated not only by state but federal laws because you are a transit district and so you have to make sure that, as a matter of public policy you’re addressing, that these meetings are actually notified to the public.’

Jennifer Johnson

“You are an elected official, as well as Kristen as well as Jim Foster, and so it is incumbent upon you to make sure that you are following the laws of open public meeting laws,” Johnson said.

New RTM member Brien Buckman, District 6, called a point of order, and asked if a town attorney was at Wednesday’s meeting — no one from the Town Attorney’s Office attended — and suggested they get back to the agenda item.

The open debate continued.

“It’s up to the Town Attorney’s Office and the first selectman to decide if we need to get Freedom of Information Act notices or not, we are not experts in that field. Again, if she says we need to do it, we’ll do it, if she says we don’t need to it, take it up with her,” Gold said.

The Westport Journal reached out to Tooker on Thursday. She texted that she was about to board a flight and referred questions to Operations Director Tom Kiely.

A Friday email to Kiely prompted an auto-reply saying he was out of the office until Monday.

Flug was reached by phone Friday afternoon.

“I don’t know whether there’s a committee that’s been appointed by the first selectwoman,” she said. “I have to look into it and get back to you.”

There was no response by Friday evening.

Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.