Thursday, February 1, 2007
Scott Stanford is general manager of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Call him at 970-871-4202 or email sstanford@SteamboatToday.com
As a story earlier this week stated, the newspaper is suing the Steamboat Springs School Board over the way its Jan. 8 meeting was conducted.
One of our online readers posted this comment after reading the story: "Has it been that cold a winter that those involved in this silliness have nothing better to do?"
I understand the reader's sentiment, though I disagree. I do not expect this lawsuit to produce earth-shattering news. If the newspaper prevails, the tangible items we hope to get are access to audiotapes of the Jan. 8 secret session and our attorneys' fees. But the more important reward, I believe, is a change in the way the School Board conducts its business.
The newspaper is putting thousands of dollars at risk. It would be far easier to just, as the online reader suggested, let this go. But the newspaper has a duty to make sure government boards adhere strictly to the state's Open Meetings Law, which sets clear rules for when secret sessions are permitted. If we don't hold public boards' feet to the fire on the Open Meetings Law, who will?
According to the law, government bodies can meet in secret session only to discuss certain limited topics, including personnel matters, property negotiations or to get legal advice. The law says that in addition to announcing the statute that allows the secret session, the board also must "identify the issue to be discussed in as much detail as possible without compromising the purpose for which the executive session is authorized."
The public deserves to know exactly why a public body needs to close its doors and that the public body will limit its discussions behind closed doors to the matter cited.
On Jan. 8, the School Board went into secret session to discuss what it called "a personnel matter relating to access to information," which we contend falls well short of the "in as much detail as possible" standard. This topic isn't even a permissible "personnel matter" because that exemption does not apply to "policy discussions" such as this.
The board went into secret session even though the district's administrators, who thought the personnel matter was about them, requested an open meeting on the issue. The board went into secret session even though one of its own members - Pat Gleason - said doing so would be wrong and refused to participate. The board went into secret session even though a Pilot & Today reporter warned the board that the newspaper would challenge the session as a violation of the Open Meetings Law and would seek audiotapes of the meeting.
The board contends it followed the law and that the personnel matter cited was about Superintendent Donna Howell. We contend that if that was the case, the board was required by law to say so, had ample opportunity to say so, but did not say so.
Last fall, we challenged a secret session held by the Oak Creek Town Board. We prevailed in that instance and were given tapes of the session. Afterward, I made a point of reviewing other boards' practices and contacting board members specifically about secret sessions. I distributed a court case (Gumina v. Sterling) to the School Board and City Council that underscored how important it is to be specific in announcing secret sessions.
We gave the School Board an opportunity, by turning over the audiotapes, to avoid court action. The board refused, arguing that it did nothing wrong. That left the newspaper with a choice: drop the matter or challenge it in court. I believe that if we are truly serious about standing up for the Open Meetings Law, the latter choice was the only choice.
Scott Stanford's From the Editor column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4221 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org