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Grievance hearings must be open during evidentiary stage

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Grievance hearings must be open during evidentiary stage 06/02/97 CONNECTICUT--Teachers' union grievance hearings must be open to the public when…

Grievance hearings must be open during evidentiary stage

06/02/97

CONNECTICUT–Teachers’ union grievance hearings must be open to the public when evidence regarding the underlying facts of the complaint is presented, but may be closed during negotiations regarding appropriate remedies or settlement, the state Supreme Court in Hartford unanimously ruled in mid-May.

The court reversed an appellate court decision and upheld in part the determination of the state Freedom of Information Commission that the hearings should be open to the public. The high court held that the remedy or settlement portion of the hearing may be categorized as a “strategy or negotiation” session exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act.

The case arose from two grievance hearings held in response to complaints brought by the Waterbury Teachers Association in 1992 to address alleged violations of the collective bargaining agreement between the association and the school board. When the board and the association agreed to conduct the hearings in private, reporters from the Waterbury Republican-American newspaper filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission, a public body that hears appeals of records requests.

The commission ruled that board and association violated the open meetings act and ordered that all future hearings be completely open to the public and press. The appellate court in Hartford reversed, holding that the grievance proceedings were “part of the ongoing collective bargaining process.”

The high court analyzed the operational characteristics of the grievance procedure and determined that it was a two-stage process — presentation of facts to demonstrate a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and a request for a remedy to correct the violation.

The court held that the state freedom of information act must be construed to contemplate a two-stage hearing. The act requires that the facts must be presented publicly, but in the absence of a waiver, the hearing may be closed during the second stage to allow the participants to deliberate and determine remedies. (Waterbury Teachers Association v. Freedom of Information Commission; Media Counsel: Thomas Parisot, Waterbury)