If you have any questions regarding the Freedom of Information Act, contact one of our attorneys at (203) 221-3100.

Meetings Subject to the FOIA

Under the FOIA, a meeting encompasses any communication involving a quorum of a public agency, whether conducted in person or through electronic means, to discuss or act upon matters within the agency’s purview. This broad definition led the FOIC to determine that a series of emails exchanged among a quorum of board members regarding board affairs could qualify as a “meeting” subject to the FOIA. Therefore, if a quorum of board members exchange emails and engage in discussions about board matters (including conducting a poll on voting preferences for an upcoming issue), they may have conducted a “meeting” in violation of the FOIA’s requirements for notice and open meetings.

For instance, the FOIC identified a FOIA violation when a quorum of board members communicated via email to draft a public statement. The FOIC concluded that such email exchanges, which included “email polling” to ascertain majority support for issuing a public statement, constituted “communication by or to a quorum” of the board “by means of electronic equipment,” thereby constituting a meeting under the FOIA that had not been properly notified or opened to the public.

What constitutes a “meeting”?

In 2007, the FOIC ruled in Shea v. PZC, Town of Stonington that an illegal or unnoticed meeting had not occurred when there was no interactive exchange among agency members in response to an email from the chairman regarding agency business.

The FOIC seemed to imply that any exchange among members of a public agency in response to an email could be deemed a “meeting.” In a 2014 case (Mauer v. Toensing), a school board member sent an email to all board members discussing substantive board matters and requested replies. Only the board chairman responded, informing the member that the original email violated the FOIA (apparently sent to the entire board). Ironically, the FOIC concluded that the subsequent reply highlighting the FOIA violation meant the original email constituted an illegal, unannounced meeting.

However, in a recent decision on January 10, 2024 (Gookins v. Member, Representative Town Meeting, Town of Groton), the FOIC did not find a FOIA violation when a member of a public agency sent emails to a quorum of the agency about agency business, with no replies from other members. The FOIC clarified that while its previous decision in Mauer could suggest a single email from one agency member to a quorum might constitute a meeting, it no longer endorses the view that such an email “without more” automatically constitutes a meeting.

E-Mail with Caution

In the Gookins decision, the FOIC advised that emailing about agency matters could inadvertently trigger an illegal meeting, especially if the email includes “substantive comments” on agency business. The FOIC emphasized that while a single email from one member to others might not constitute a meeting, it could provoke responses from other members, even if unintentionally.

Therefore, caution is advisable. School board members should refrain from using email as a substitute for discussing or deliberating in public meetings. They should keep in mind two key points: first, avoid sending emails to the entire board or quorum discussing board matters to prevent unintended consequences from member replies; and second, if receiving such an email, refrain from replying, especially using the “reply all” function. It’s advisable for any email shared with the entire board before a meeting to explicitly caution recipients against replying.

Maya Murphy P.C. has proudly been included in the 2024 Edition of Best Law Firms®, ranked among the top firms in the nation. In addition, Managing Partner Joseph C. Maya has been selected to The Best Lawyers in America® 2024 for his work in Employment Law and Education Law in Connecticut. Recognition in Best Lawyers® is awarded to firms and attorneys who demonstrate excellence in the industry and is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor.

Our firm in Westport, Connecticut serves clients with legal assistance all over the state, including the towns of Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Bethel, Branford, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Cheshire, Danbury, Darien, Derby, East Haven, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Guilford, Hamden, Madison, Meriden, Middlebury, Milford, Monroe, Naugatuck, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Haven, Newton, North Branford, North Haven, Norwalk, Orange, Oxford, Prospect, Redding, Ridgefield, Seymour, Shelton, Sherman, Southbury, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Wallingford, Waterbury, West Haven, Weston, Westport, Wilton, and Woodbridge. In addition to assisting clients in Connecticut, our firm handles education law matters in New York as well.

If you have any questions or would like to speak to an attorney about a legal matter, please contact Joseph C. Maya and the other experienced attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a free initial consultation today.