Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Pilot & Today filed a lawsuit Monday accusing the Steamboat Springs School Board of violating the state's Open Meetings Law.
The newspaper is seeking access to audiotapes of a Jan. 8 secret session. The newspaper and its attorney, Chris Beall, requested the tapes, arguing that they are a public record because the School Board's secret session was illegal. The newspaper filed the lawsuit after the requests for the tapes were denied.
The suit centers around anonymous surveys filled out by district staff and teachers about administrators. Superintendent Donna Howell had promised administrators that the survey results would be kept confidential, but School Board members ordered her to release the results to them.
Howell initially refused the order because she questioned whether she legally could release the results. On the night of the meeting, district administrators, believing the "personnel matter" listed on the School Board's secret session agenda was about them, read statements opposing the board's efforts to obtain the survey results. The administrators also asked that any discussion about the matter be held in open session, which Colorado Open Meetings Law permits. School Board member Pat Gleason, believing the administrators had asserted their right to an open meeting, refused to participate in the secret session.
According to the law, government bodies such as school boards can meet in secret session to discuss personnel matters, discuss property negotiations or get legal advice. But the body must identify the issue to be discussed in as much detail as possible without compromising the purpose for which the secret session is authorized.
School Board attorney Richard Lyons has said the Jan. 8 secret session agenda item identified as "personnel matter involving access to information" was about Howell and her refusal to give the School Board the survey results. Following the secret session, School Board members voted to order Howell to give them the surveys, which she did later that week.
Beall said Lyons' statement reinforces the newspaper's lawsuit because the School Board failed to identify the superintendent as the subject of the first secret session.
The Pilot & Today also contends that the School Board had no reason to meet behind closed doors if it simply was discussing access to information. Such a discussion is a policy discussion, not a personnel matter.
"They have to announce what they are going to talk about with accuracy and as much detail as they can," Beall said. "If they are going into executive session to discuss the superintendent, they need to identify that. It's the principle of requiring public bodies to accurately identify the topics they are discussing behind closed doors."
In a Jan. 23 letter to Beall, Lyons contended that the School Board did nothing illegal and therefore isn't required to turnover the tapes. On Monday, Lyons said he doesn't think the School Board's stance has changed.
Making sure government bodies follow the letter of the law is a worthy undertaking, Pilot & Today Publisher Bryna Larsen said Monday.
"The Steamboat Pilot & Today takes its role as a government watchdog very seriously, particularly in the area of open meetings and public records," Larsen said. "We have requested on multiple occasions that the Steamboat Springs School Board follow the law and be as specific as possible in announcing its executive sessions. But, as the Jan. 8 School Board meeting shows, the board has not complied with our basic requests.
"At this point, this is the only recourse we have."
Beall filed the lawsuit electronically with Routt County District Court on Monday.
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