Judge hears arguments in suit

Transcripts to be viewed in newspaper case against School Board

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— A judge ordered the Steamboat Springs School Board on Friday to give him a sealed transcript of what was said during its Jan. 8 executive session, but he did not rule whether the School Board violated Colorado Open Meetings Law and whether that transcript will be released to the public.

Friday's hearing in Routt County District Court was the first court proceeding in the Steamboat Pilot & Today's lawsuit against the School Board. The newspaper has sued the School Board regarding access to the tapes from that closed-door meeting, which the newspaper contends was held illegally.

After hearing arguments from attorneys representing both sides, visiting Senior Judge Thomas Ossola said he wanted to take possession of the meeting transcript, but had not yet decided whether to look over the transcript. Ossola said he expects to make a final ruling in the case by March 16.

The Pilot & Today is seeking access to the tapes of the meeting and injunctive relief - an order from the judge to the School Board that it not violate the law again.

Steamboat Pilot & Today attorney Chris Beall argued Friday that the board violated state Open Meetings Law by not properly identifying the reason the School Board went into executive session and that the board had no reason to meet in secret because its members were discussing policy, not personnel.

School Board attorney Richard Lyons countered that the board properly cited its reason for entering into executive session and that they were discussing a personnel matter about Superintendent Donna Howell. Lyons also argued that the newspaper had no standing to pursue its claim.

The lawsuit centers around anonymous surveys filled out by district teachers and support staff about their administrators. Howell said she told administrators that the survey results would remain confidential, but School Board members later demanded access to the surveys and ordered Howell to turn them over. Board members contend they have legal right to all school files, and they say they were the ones who ordered the anonymous surveys.

Howell was given a directive in December to release the survey results to the board. She refused to do so.

During the Jan. 8 meeting, the board voted to go into executive session to discuss a personnel matter involving "access to information." When they emerged from the secret discussion, they again directed Howell to release the survey results, which she did.

After Friday's hearing, School Board President Denise Connelly said she was grateful Ossola didn't make a ruling and is taking his time with the decision.

"I respect his professionalism and thoroughness," she said.

Connelly said the board understands the complexity of the issue at hand and contends it is in the middle of a balancing act.

"We're trying to balance the confidentiality of our employees with the public's right to know," she said. "Part of our duty is to protect that confidentiality to a certain extent."

Pilot & Today Editor Scott Stanford said taking the case through the legal system was the newspaper's only option.

"The newspaper takes seriously its role as a government watchdog, and we believe that this case can help clarify important issues about open meetings and the way public boards in general, and the School Board in particular, conduct their business," he said.

Ossola is hearing the case to avoid any conflict of interest. Connelly is the wife of Routt County Judge James Garrecht.

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