School Board settles lawsuit with newspaper

District will pay $50K in Pilot & Today attorney's fees

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— On the heels of a March 26 ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals, the School Board voted Monday to accept a settlement offer from the Pilot & Today. According to the offer, the district will pay the newspaper $50,000 in attorney fees and release the transcripts from an illegal closed-door meeting held by a previous School Board on Jan. 8, 2007.

Board members John DeVincentis, Denise Connelly and Robin Crossan expressed regret that the district would have to pay any fee. The board voted, 4-1, to accept the settlement. DeVincentis voted against the agreement.

"Even though I'm disappointed with where we are at at this point, and I do feel that appealing to the (state) Supreme Court that we would prevail, I do feel that it would be in the best interest of the district to settle," Connelly said.

The board also owes about $40,000 to its own attorney.

"This is going to cost us $90,000 because the Pilot wants to prove a point," DeVincentis said.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the previous School Board - comprised of DeVincentis, Connelly, Jeff Troeger, Jerry Kozatch and Pat Gleason - did not adequately specify the reason for meeting in executive session and failed to announce its intention to confer with its attorney during the meeting. Both actions violated the provisions of Colorado's Open Meetings Law. Gleason was the only board member to vote against going into executive session during the January 2007 meeting.

"We appreciate that this was a hard decision for the board and that the financial consequences of the prior board's decisions are unfortunate, but the newspaper is pleased that the district can now put this matter behind it and move forward," Pilot & Today Publisher Suzanne Schlicht said.

Comments

Harvey Lyon 4 years, 12 months ago

Gosh, I would have thought a $45k payment of local taxpayer's money to our local paper would have made the front page in Big Bold Headlines!

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goremtn 4 years, 12 months ago

A smart move by the board to not contine litigating this. Whatever the merits of the fight are on either side, the only winners here would have been the lawyers, while we taxpayers would have been stuck with the bill. Better uses of money for sure (like additional music, art and drama curriculum at all grade levels!).

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sickofitall 4 years, 12 months ago

Thanks pilot for taking $50,000 out of our school system in these tough times. Take whatever plunger you left in the toilet out!

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trump_suit 4 years, 11 months ago

I for one support the Pilot on this issue. The Gov't entities in this town find the need for far too many "executive" or "Closed Door" sessions.

The citizens of this county elected those officials and have a right to know what their decisions are and why those decisions were made.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 12 months ago

Why is it the Pilot's fault that the school district lost the lawsuit? Even if the School district had won, they had still spent $50,000 for their lawyer.

Seems to me that the school district is the one that spent $90K to prove a point. The Pilot spent $40K to prove a point and now because the Court said they were right, they are going to be reimbursed.

I blame the School Board for failing to avoid the lawsuit. I think they should have stopped paying their lawyer and settled once the trial judge refused their motion to dismiss.

The case was not about money so it was not situation of spending money on a lawyer to save or recover money. The case was purely about the Board's right to hold a secret meeting and whether the reason given was valid. And the three judges on the court of appeals all said that the reason given was not valid and that was so obvious that there was nothing in the case that would interest the Colorado Supreme Court.

For cases regarding process in which there are no direct financial issues at stake, I think public officials should file a motion to dismiss and if there are sufficient questions whether the officials properly followed the law then they should settle and move to correct their actions to clearly comply with the law.

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Guinevere 4 years, 12 months ago

Scott, you don't know what you're talking about and excuse me, but you sound like a gas bag who likes to hear himself talk. The Pilot's lawyers were obviously working on contingency - they weren't going to get paid much unless they won, which is why they kept on and on. As was stated at the meeting last night, 6 out of 8 judges who heard the case sided with the school board. They won the original suit and the first appeal. The second appeals court tends to side with corporations and they are often out of sync with other courts, including the Co. Supreme Court. Had the school board taken it to the Co. Supreme Court, they almost undoubtedly would have won. But they apparently didn't want to risk more legal fees. You're right about the Pilot's motivation not being money - it's more a case of big egos who can't stand to lose. And who don't care if they take $90,000 from our children while they pretend to be a great member of the community. Disgusting.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 12 months ago

Guin, You are the one that doesn't know what you are talking about.

The Pilot's lawyers were not working on contingency. You flat out made that up. And your fabrication makes no sense because lawyers do not work on contingency on the hopes they might get reimbursed normal legal fees, but in order to take a share of the overall damages.

And your 6 out of 8 judges is also clearly a lie because all 3 court of appeals ruled against the school district. Two used the same reasoning to rule against the school board and the third used a somewhat different reasoning to rule against the school board.

And if the school district "almost undoubtedly would have won" then it was a terrible decision to settle. So the school board fought the case at trial, two rounds of appeals and then decides to settle??? If it cost them $50K for trial and two rounds of appeals then it certainly would have cost less than $40K for one more round of appeals. So if they were going to win at the Supreme Court then by quitting now the school board have cost the kids tens of thousands of dollars and instead gave the money to the paper which will give the paper confidence in their lawyers to fight future open meetings cases.

More likely, upon reading the opinion from the Court of Appeals the school district lawyers knew they could easily, if not probably, lose at the Supreme Court.

And it takes two to have a fight. So why are you mad at the paper for this fight and not the school board? School board could have ended this fight by settling before trial.

Or do you claim that the School district has always offered these settlement terms to the paper and that the paper has continually refused to accept these terms until now?

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

Scott, What makes you so sure the Pilot lawyers were NOT working on contingency? They win, the school board pays, they lose, they get a much smaller fee.

I went to the meeting because I wanted to hear what was actually said instead of depending on the Pilot for my information. And '6 of 8 judges' was stated at that meeting. You can accuse me of lying but I was there and I'm pretty sure you weren't. As for why they didn't go on to the Supreme Court - since neither of us are on the school board, we can't know for sure but I imagine it's because they are in a position where they can't take any more risk with taxpayer money and the Supreme Court only takes a small percentage of cases. Not to mention they have plenty of work to do other than spending time on the pilot's lawsuit.

And now, thanks to the Pilot, whenever the board or city council has to go into executive session, which they actually need to do sometimes, they will have to pay their lawyers to review it. So more money to the lawyers on top of the $90,000 that they just got out of this!

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

And, regarding your last question - The board did try several times to settle with the Pilot. That was also stated in the meeting Monday. After winning the first suit and the first appeal, the board should not have had anything to 'settle' but the Pilot wanted them to pay for their legal fees. The board tried to settle this with them to keep them from going on with more appeals but the Pilot made it impossible.

Also, did you notice the Pilot had to change their whole approach? You said, "The case was purely about the Board's right to hold a secret meeting and whether the reason given was valid." Not so. At one point it was proven that the meeting was valid and that the board was talking about what they said they were. So the Pilot changed it to an attack on the 'wording' they used to announce the meeting.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

Guin, I was not at the school board meeting.

You start off claiming that the Pilot's were working on contingency and now you speculate that they might have had some sort of contingency agreement. Why don't you provide some evidence that they were working on contingency instead of just making things up? Your claim of contingency make no sense when all that can be recovered by statute are actual legal costs (if agreement is to be paid less if they lose the case then judge is likely to rule that lower amount is the actual legal fees and all they get from the district if they win).

And last summer after complaining to someone at the Pilot about their failing to follow up another issue, that person gave me an earful of how the Pilot was already doing an awful lot for a small newspaper including paying lawyers to pursue the school district case.

If they were saying that 6 out of 8 judges had agreed with them then they are liars. And so maybe what they say about the rest of the case should be taken with some skepticism.

Just about every other board or council manages to go into executive session without getting sued. Maybe instead of blaming others the school board should blame themselves for an overly vague reason for entering executive session and then discussing a different topic when in session.

Since the school district had won at the lower levels, it can be considered "proven" that what they did was okay. But since the last word was the Court of Appeals decision, it is now "proven" that the School Board did it wrong.

The majority opinion of the court of Appeals said (as of now this is what is "proven") that the reason for going into executive session was too vague and so it was improper. (And because the meeting started illegally then there was no need to consider what was said in the meeting).

The concurring opinion is not what is considered "proven", but it still disagreed with the school district. It sad that maybe the reason given could be a legal reason to go to executive session, but it wasn't when the board strayed from the reason given and they had also improperly made a policy decision in the secret meeting.

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

Scott, If you're so concerned about the contingency question, why don't you ask someone who was involved and you'll find the answer. I may not be using the perfect legalese but I've still got the story right. Apparently you are a frustrated lawyer, you're also big on calling people liars. I'm late, no more time to argue with you.

Better yet, why don't you just ask the Pilot for the whole story? They're supposed to be the reporters.

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Duke_bets 4 years, 11 months ago

Guin - Old Scotty did call you out on 2 blatant lies. And, the school board settled, so they basically admit to their mistakes. Why is it that you support the school board and Quinn? In both cases, you argue for not following laws.

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

Nice of you to defend old Scotty except the '2 blatant lies' are true:

  1. true: the pilots's lawyers were on contingency. ask someone who knows. (not that it's that big of a point here)

  2. true: it was stated at the school board meeting that 6 out of 8 judges who heard the case sided with the school board.

You guys are just goofy and not much fun to talk to! (and we're not talking about dogs swimming in the river anymore, we're talking about $90,000 taken from our schools)

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

Guin, I agree that $90K was taken from our schools. I just blame the school district for fighting the case instead of at the start saying the case was not worth fighting and release the info.

Okay, maybe you are not the source of the 6 out of 8 judges lie and maybe that lie was told to you at the school board meeting. But it is indisputable that all 3 Court of Appeals judges ruled against the school district.

And if someone at the meeting is willing to make such a blatant lie then maybe not everything else they said is the complete truth.

"specially concurs" means the judge concurs, but wrote a separate opinion. It most certainly does not mean "dissented".

From http://www.cobar.org/opinions/opinion.cfm?opinionid=7077

Court of Appeals No.: 07CA1104 Routt County District Court No. 07CV16 Honorable Thomas W. Ossola, Judge

Worldwest Limited Liability Company, d/b/a The Steamboat Pilot & Today, a Kansas limited liability company, and Bryna Larsen,

Plaintiffs-Appellants and Cross-Appellees,

v.

Steamboat Springs School District RE-2, Board of Education,

Defendant-Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

JUDGMENT REVERSED AND CASE REMANDED

Division VII Opinion by: JUDGE METZGER* Graham, J., concur Carparelli, J., specially concurs

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

I found an audio of the lawyers for both sides arguing the case in front of the court of appeals judges.

The lawyers for the school district did not argue that the board legally went into executive session. In fact, they did not contest the assertion that the board had failed to follow the law when entering executive session because the law states that when citing "personnel matters" to enter executive session then the person involved has to be named and they failed to do that.

The lawyers for the school district instead claimed that the record of the meeting should stay secret because they talked with their lawyer and thus were covered by the attorney client privilege and that the judges couldn't review the record of the meeting because of the privilege. They also claimed that the only person that could sue to open the record was the person involved in the personnel matter. They also claimed that the paper's lawyers were bringing up new legal issues that should have been made at trial.

Thus, nothing about the case should affect public officials going into executive session. This affects other public officials only after they hold an improper executive session and whether they can still keep the minutes secret and whether a newspaper can request the record of an improper secret meeting.

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Duke_bets 4 years, 11 months ago

Guin - Tell us more about the contingency. You have provided no evidence and I can't believe the Pilot's lawyers worked for free unless they won. And, the 6 of 8 judges is simply not true. Public information states that all 3 appeals courts ruled against the school. Where did these 6 judges come from? Blame the school district for wasting $90k, not the newspaper.

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

The Pilots's lawyers were working on contingency. It is not a secret; ask the management (your source?) at the Pilot or anyone on the school board and they will tell you. The Pilot's lawyers got a small down payment and the rest was contingency.

I checked it out and the '6 out of 8 judges' statement made at the meeting was a mistake. There were four judges who reviewed whether or not the wording used on the motion to go into executive session was appropriate. And they were split on this 2-2. But there was NO QUESTION that the executive session itself was valid. (listen to your audio and you will hear that) They were discussing a personnel matter and they are REQUIRED to do that in private - they can face legal liabilities if they don't. That is why the Pilot had to change their approach and attack the wording that was used to announce the meeting, not the meeting itself.

The problem the board was stuck with in announcing the meeting was stating enough detail to satisfy the Pilot and not using too much detail, which would violate the legal requirements protecting personnel information. Keep in mind these are a bunch of volunteer citizens trying to contribute to their school district. They are not lawyers. The Colorado Association of School Boards supported Steamboat on this case and wanted them to continue to fight the Pilot. Unfortunately, they did not have any funds to contribute.

Duke - ONE appeals court ruled against the school board. (not three) The original suit and the first appeal were both won by the school district. (Will you please not write anything if you have no clue what is going on and haven't even read it?)

The point is, even after the school board won the first two rounds, the Pilot wanted them to pay for their fees; the school board did try to settle with them on that but the Pilot kept pushing it. These are not people who have the best interests of our community or children in mind. Anyone who is concerned about class size or cutting programs should pass your complaints along to the Pilot's management, because they are taking money right out of our kids' schools. And they are still driven by their own personal agendas and grudges from this old, old story.

And Scott, this case does "affect public officials going into executive session." All public boards will now have to pay lawyers to review the wording they use in announcing these meetings for fear that the Pilot will sue them. So more money for the lawyers.

You can have your last word and look up every little detail you want, but the bottom line is: This case should never have come to this and the Pilot has taken $90,000 from our school district. If you don't like it, I suggest you BOYCOTT the newspaper, cancel your subscription, and cancel your advertising. Of course, those at the Pilot could still surprise us and offer to do the right thing and pay their own d--- lawyers. But I'm not holding my breath.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

I got a pdf copy of the court of appeals decision. I'll send it to anyone that wants it.

No wonder the school board decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court. It'd be like saying we made the last second shot to win the game where two of the refs say the shot doesn't count because it was after the clock had expired while the third ref says maybe it left in time, but it was an airball.

Majority opinion said that reason given to go to executive session was insufficient, no need to look at what was said during the secret meeting. Minority opinion said that while the reason given was insufficient, from the context of prior public discussion, that it was generally understood what the topic of the secret meeting was going to be and that was not enough of a mistake to make them release the transcript.

From the concurring opinion (the judge that didn't join the majority opinion and which Guin counts as supporting the school district): I conclude that the district court erred when it concluded that the Board did not violate the OML by failing to make an adequate announcement of the topic and specific citation to the statutory provision authorizing an executive session, did not engage in a substantial discussion of non-exempt matters, and did not adopt a policy or position.

The transcript shows that the Board did not discuss a personnel matter regarding any employee. Instead, it contains a discussion about the Board's desire that its past and current discussions of the survey results be confidential. There were no comments that the superintendent's failure to provide copies of the results to the Board constituted insubordination or that the superintendent should be disciplined in any way. This constitutes two violations of the OML. First, the announcement of the purpose and authority for the executive session did not reflect the topic actually discussed, and the topic discussed was not exempt from the OML.

Moreover, immediately upon returning to open session after its second consultation with its attorney, and without voting, the Board President announced the Board's position regarding the survey results and read the Board's directive to the superintendent. There is no evidence that the Board had discussed and voted on its position or the directive in an open session. Thus, the Board violated the OML by adopting a position in closed session.

To the extent that the Board discussed the survey results in the executive session, the announcement was sufficient. However, as noted above, I have concluded that the transcript of the executive session demonstrates that the most discussed topic in the executive session was the Board's desire that the debate about its access to the survey results should be confidential and this topic was neither announced nor exempt.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

I hadn't read Guin's latest post when writing my previous post.

And Guin you are simply wrong about the notice for executive session being okay and then the discussion during the executive session was ruled to be okay.

And if what you say about the lawyer's pay agreement is true then that is not contingency, but is a retainer and payment delayed until case is complete. For it to be a contingency requires that Pilot would owe nothing if they lost the case. No evidence that was the situation.

And yes, $90K wasted that should have been used for the kids. I blame the egos at the school board for fighting the case.

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Duke_bets 4 years, 11 months ago

Guin - I am 100% correct about the lawyers not working on contingency. It's not my fault if you don't know the definition of contingency, which I explained several posts before Scott did. And, I am 100% correct about the 6 of 8 judges comment. The last is the appeals, which was obviously won by the Pilot, so I'll give myself another 100% on that one.

You have admitted to making up 2 of those 3 statements and the 3rd is questionable. Who should quit posting?

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Guinevere 4 years, 11 months ago

Scott, your whole lengthy post above is about the second appeal. That leaves out the original ruling and the first appeal, both of which the school board won. You are so bogged down in all these details that you are missing the big picture. And you're ignoring the fact that the school board tried repeatedly to settle with the Pilot even after they (the board) had won twice. (And about the contingency, have you asked someone who was actually involved? I didn't think so.)

Duke - You are pretty funny and definitely 100% out to lunch. Surely you have not read any more than snippets of this discussion.

OK, it's all yours guys because I am not spending any more time on this website.

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Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

I note that "6 of 8 judges" has just been corrected to 3 out of 8 judges if first round of appeals was 2-2.

The final part of this story is going to be when the minutes for the meeting is released. If the secret meeting was largely about Donna Howell and her job performance then maybe the school board will get some public sympathy. If the secret meeting had almost no mention of Donna Howell's job performance and was instead on how the board wanted the confidential surveys and wanted to keep it secret from staff that they were looking at the surveys then that would be highly embarrassing and it would like the school board spent $90K to try to cover up their actions.

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