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Reporter's Notebook: Avon paid more than $10,000 to keep this record secret

Sastre says that when he first began filing FOI requests he spent hours writing formal complaint letters. Now he generally forwards an email where his request for information was denied to the Freedom of Information Commission with a just a brief explanation.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Case records describe the lengthy public records dispute over whether the town of Avon must disclose a document that would shed light on its former police chief's retirement.

The town argues the "issues raised in this case are novel and impact an employer's duty to respond to workplace concerns."

The town of Avon’s tab for legal expenses continues to grow as it fights orders from a state commission and a superior court judge to release records to the public.

Legal invoices reviewed by The Accountability Project show Avon has paid more than $10,000 to date in its attempt to stop the release of a document related to its former police chief’s abrupt retirement in 2019.

The document has been described in legal filings as a log of incidents created by another town employee involving then-Chief Mark Rinaldo. The log includes detailed observations of "certain work related activities" by the chief from June 20, 2018, through Oct. 25, 2019, according to court records.

The state's Freedom of Information Commission ordered Avon to release the document in response to a request for records filed by a resident of nearby Farmington.

Avon appealed the decision in court, however, and now seeks a determination from Connecticut’s highest legal authority that the document should stay secret. In a legal filing last week, the town’s lawyer argued that the "issues raised in this case are novel and impact an employer's duty to respond to workplace concerns."

It’s not uncommon for public entities to appeal FOIC rulings, but Avon’s decision to continue litigating the case comes at increasing cost to the town. Avon pays by the hour for legal services. Its combined charges for representation before the FOIC and the court now top $11,500. Ongoing representation will cost an additional $270 per hour, records show.

The town has argued that the log is not a public record, and is covered by attorney-client privilege.

According to court documents, the employee who created the log met with the town manager in November 2019 to discuss certain incidents involving the chief. The town manager then conferred with the town's lawyer, who requested a copy of any notes the employee kept documenting the incidents. The employee handed the log over to the town manager, who provided it to the town's lawyer for review.

Avon is represented in the matter by labor and employment law firm FordHarrison LLP. Invoices show it has billed the community for more than 42 hours of work related to the public records case.

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 released a copy of their severance agreement with the chief, but withheld the log of incidents. The FOI commission eventually determined that the log was a public document. But it took more than a year and a half for the commission to reach that decision, which was finalized in November 2021.

New Britain Superior Court Judge John L. Cordani dismissed the town’s first appeal in September 2022, finding that the FOIC was correct in ordering the town to release the document. Avon has since filed paperwork appealing the decision with the state Appellate Court.

Town Manager Brandon Robertson declined a request to discuss why fighting the decision is in the community’s interest, citing the ongoing litigation. He referred to the town’s arguments in court. Reached by phone last week, Rinaldo also declined to comment on the case.

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

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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