Meeting rules possibly broken

E-mail exchanges include entire Oak Creek Town Board

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— Though Oak Creek's elected officials said they meant no wrongdoing, the Town Board may have violated the state's open meeting laws by carrying out e-mail discussions on community-police relations in August.

E-mails obtained by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, exchanged in late August between Town Board members and town employees, contained significant discussion about how best to approach meeting with local business owners concerned about the Oak Creek Police Department.

There was no "conspiracy" to keep any discussion secret - rather the Town Board was "just trying to carry out business as usual," Trustee Dave Ege said Friday.

The Colorado Open Meetings law considers electronic communications discussing public business, such as e-mails, exchanged between three or more members of a local public body, to constitute a meeting.

"The Sunshine Law is very specific, but I don't think there was any intent on hiding anything," Ege said. "Some e-mails were sent back and forth, that it sounded like got copied to everyone when they didn't need to be."

"I think part of it could just be some folks just not realizing that when you reply, you can 'reply' or 'reply all'," he said.

The Town Board no longer is sending e-mails, Mayor J. Elliott said Friday. Other than meeting agendas, the e-mails discussing the community-police relations meeting with local business owners were the only messages he received, he said.

"We're obviously going to be a lot more careful and make sure we follow the rules," Ege said.

On the community police matter, two of the Town Board members - one short of the quorum that would have required the meeting to be public, under state law - met with business owners in a closed meeting on Sept. 4.

In e-mail discussions beginning Aug. 25, the Town Board discussed whether or not the meeting should be open to the public, as well as weighing in on which board members should attend.

"It is my belief that it is way past time for the police commissioners and the police department to schedule a meeting between themselves and the business community of Oak Creek. It is also my opinion that this meeting should be held separately from any regular board meeting and not piggybacked onto any other work sessions, meetings or regular police forums either," Trustee Dave Fisher wrote. "Input should be sought exclusively from the business community, not necessarily the public at large at this meeting."

In addition to talking about keeping the meeting closed to prevent it from turning into "a circus," some of the discussion centered around precluding Elliott and Fisher, who both own businesses in town, from attending, to avoid quorum.

"They would need to either represent the Town Board or be precluded so there is not a need of an open public meeting and a 'Police Forum 3' episode which will solve nothing," Trustee Chuck Wisecup wrote Aug. 25.

On Aug. 26, Town Clerk Karen Halterman noted the issue would be put on the Town Board's next meeting agenda for resolution, and that she would no longer use e-mail "to share town business" with board members.

"It seems to be causing a problem with citizens who have 'found out' there are e-mails being sent to and fro about this and that and are suggesting impropriety," she wrote.

"It was technically inappropriate - I'll probably have to give you that - but I don't think anyone was trying to hide anything," Ege said. He declined to comment more specifically on any of the e-mails.

Other Town Board members did not return calls for comment Friday.

Town attorney Bob Weiss briefed the current Town Board in June on applicable open meetings and open records laws.

In October 2006, the Steamboat Pilot & Today filed a lawsuit against the town of Oak Creek, seeking the release of audio recordings of an executive session where the Town Board heard complaints from three town employees describing poor working conditions under then-mayor Kathy "Cargo" Rodeman.

Colorado Open Meetings law states local governing bodies are allowed to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters but not if the employee in question has requested an open meeting. Further, the law specifically states the personnel matters option does not apply to "any member of a local public body" or "any elected official."

- To reach Melinda Dudley, call 871-4203 or e-mail mdudley@steamboatpilot.com

Comments

Duke_bets 6 years ago

I don't believe it's necessary to waste time and money investigating this issue. However, I would strongly agree that Ege's explanation is absurd. Claiming ignorance to every issue that arises is sad and truly reflects the capacity of the current board.

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Scott Wedel 6 years ago

This is just part of business as usual for Oak Creek Town government. For them to claim ignorance means they are either stupid or liars.

I raised a big stink about Town Board members exchanging emails back in May when a Town Board member asked me such a ridiculous question that I asked where did that idea come from. And then I was shown the email which the Town Board member accidentally showed me the replies which were also copied to the entire Town Board and Planning Board. Several of the replies specifically stated the Board member's specific opinion of what Town policy should be for that topic. I was appalled by that secret discussion of Town policy.

At public comment for one board meeting I stated how that was most likely a violation of the Colorado Open Meeting law. At the board meeting which Town Attorney Bob Weiss appeared and talked about the Colorado Open Meetings law, I stated that email exchanges among Board members talking about policy was also most likely a violation of Colorado Open Meetings law. Bob Weiss was not sure about that, but I said the head of the AP office in Denver was pretty sure that email exchanges were considered the same as a conversation among the participants.

I raised enough of a fuss that Karen Halterman included the email exchange into the public record.

Considering they went through this exact same issue just a few months ago and they put that email exchange policy discussion into the public record, it is extremely hard to believe there was anything but intent to hold secret policy discussions among themselves so that they could present a "solution" already known to be acceptable to several of the Board members at the next Town Board meeting.

This is no accident of "reply" vs "reply to all" because there is no purpose for a Trustee to write an email suggesting Town policy unless it is to be read by other Trustees. And if it is to be read by other Trustees then it needs to be open to the public.

Whoever prosecutes violations of Colorado Open Meetings law needs to open an investigation into the Town of Oak Creek because this is sadly business as usual.

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