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After $13K legal fight, Connecticut town releases a document it tried to keep secret

Joseph Sastre looking into the abrupt retirement of Avon police chief Mark Rinaldo by making use of the Freedom of Information Act.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Joseph Sastre looking into the abrupt retirement of Avon police chief Mark Rinaldo by making use of the Freedom of Information Act.

The town of Avon has released a document it tried to keep secret for more than four years after losing a series of court challenges.

The document is a log created by another town employee describing concerns about the conduct of then-Police Chief Mark Rinaldo. Some parts of the record focus on management decisions at the department, such as the use of overtime. Others describe personal behavior the employee deemed inappropriate, including a series of incidents in a police workout room.

Rinaldo didn’t respond to requests for comment on the log’s release.

Records reviewed by Connecticut Public show the town paid more than $13,000 on legal fees and court costs in its unsuccessful bid to stop the document from being disclosed.

Joseph Sastre, a lawyer and First Amendment advocate who requested the document, said the case shows how easy it is for government agencies in Connecticut to delay and deny Freedom of Information Act requests.

“The open records laws are wonderful,” he said. “In practice, it's a joke.”

The log includes detailed observations of the chief made by another town employee from June 20, 2018, through Oct. 25, 2019. The town maintained the document was exempt from disclosure because it was protected by attorney-client privilege, and because it consists of an individual's personal notes.

The state's Freedom of Information Commission disagreed, ordering Avon to release the document in 2021. Avon unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the Superior Court in 2022, then filed another challenge in the state Appellate Court, which was also rejected.

The town asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to intervene, but the court declined to take up the case, forcing Avon to finally disclose the document earlier this year.

Sastre was represented in the appeals process by the ACLU of Connecticut. Elana Bildner, a senior staff attorney, said the ACLU joined the case to help preserve the public’s right of access to records that describe police conduct.

“Avon was making an argument, especially later on in the proceedings, that the document in question was somehow personal or private,” she said. “And we very emphatically rejected that idea. Because when it comes to policing, and a town document about what the police chief is doing, that is absolutely something that the public has an interest in, and a right to access.”

Rinaldo was abruptly placed on leave in November 2019, and town officials were tight-lipped about the decision, saying only that allegations had surfaced about his conduct. Rinaldo retired a few months later, signing an agreement that allowed him to cash out more than $80,000 of unused time off, and three months’ worth of additional severance pay.

Town officials previously provided Sastre with a copy of the severance agreement, but they withheld the log of incidents involving the chief.

Connecticut Public highlighted the dispute in an investigative report describing lengthy delays in public records cases.

Avon was represented in the matter by attorney Michael Harrington from the labor and employment firm FordHarrison LLP. Invoices show the firm billed the community for more than 42 hours of work related to the public records case at rates that ranged between $260 and $280 per hour.

Harrington didn’t respond to requests for comment last week from Connecticut Public. In a recent email exchange with Sastre — shared with Connecticut Public — Harrington wrote that he stopped charging the town for his services after Avon’s initial appeal was rejected by the Superior Court.

Connecticut Public previously described the growing expense of the case to Avon taxpayers around that time.

Avon Town Manager Brandon Robertson declined to comment last month on the town’s decision to continue litigating the matter in the face of repeated administrative and legal defeats.

“Once this matter was brought to our attention, the prior Police Chief was immediately placed on administrative leave and he subsequently chose to retire,” Robertson wrote in an email. “The Town was extremely fortunate that Jim Rio was willing and available to step in and lead the department forward. Chief Paul Melanson has picked up where Jim Rio left off and continues to provide excellent leadership to the Avon Police Department.”

Bildner, from the ACLU, said the case should raise questions for residents about the town's decision to continue fighting against disclosure of the record.

"If I were someone in Avon, and my police chief left his post very suddenly among murky circumstances, and the town refused to say what had happened, and then refused to release the documentation it had about what had happened over a period of years, I, frankly, would be outraged," Bildner said. "Because that's my police chief, right? I have the right to know what my police chief did."

Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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