Court of Appeals: School Board violated Open Meetings Law

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— The Steamboat Springs School Board violated the state's Open Meetings Law when it failed to properly announce the topic of a closed-door meeting Jan. 8, 2007, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The ruling was in response to an appeal from the Steamboat Pilot & Today, which filed suit against the district in January 2007 about the disputed executive session. A district court judge ruled in favor of the School Board in a March 2007 ruling; the Pilot & Today appealed that decision. Thursday's ruling by the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling of the District Court.

In its suit, the Pilot & Today accused the School Board of violating Open Meetings Law when it went into executive session to discuss the then-controversial staff surveys of district administrators.

Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to cite the specific provision that allows them to meet in executive session, and public bodies must identify the particular matter to be discussed in secret in as much detail as possible. During the Jan. 8, 2007, meeting, the School Board said it was going into executive session to discuss a personnel matter regarding "access to information."

The Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the "notice was deficient in failing to state that the executive session would concern the release of the survey results. In addition, the notice was deficient in not identifying that the 'personnel matter' was specifically the performance of the superintendent."

Because the executive session was not convened properly, the Court of Appeals ruled that the minutes from the closed-door meeting should have been released. As part of Thursday's ruling, the School Board has been ordered to release the unredacted transcript of the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.

Similarly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Pilot & Today that the School Board failed to announce its intention to confer with its attorney during the executive session. A transcript of the executive session revealed that the School Board sought specific legal advice during the closed-door meeting that had been announced only as a "personnel matter" regarding "access to information."

In a special concurrence, Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli disagreed with the finding of a notice violation, but he still concluded that the School Board violated Open Meetings Law by improperly making a policy decision behind closed doors with no public vote or public discussion. That decision, Carparelli wrote, came when board members directed former Superintendent Donna Howell to give a copy of the staff survey results to board members. Carparelli also concluded that the entire discussion behind closed doors Jan. 8, 2007, was illegal because it did not actually involve a "personnel" matter, but rather involved the board's desire to keep its views about the survey results secret.

"We're pleased the Court of Appeals recognized the School Board's failure to meet the letter of the law," said Suzanne Schlicht, publisher of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. "We cannot underestimate the importance of Open Meetings Law to the health and transparency of a democracy. We hope Thursday's ruling sends a message to all public bodies that there is no compromising when it comes to conducting the people's business."

The School Board also has been ordered to pay the legal fees incurred by the Pilot & Today in pursuing the case. The School Board has 45 days to ask for another Court of Appeals hearing or to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"The board will review the decision with its legal counsel and that of the Colorado Association of School Boards in the near future to determine the next course of action consistent with the district's best interest, as well as that of the taxpayers," current School Board President Robin Crossan said Thursday night.

"It's unfortunate that the statute gives attorneys fees to the newspaper but would not give the district its fees if the district had prevailed."

Crossan was not a member of the School Board during the time of the illegal executive session. That board consisted of Denise Connelly, John DeVincentis, Pat Gleason, Jeff Troeger and Jerry Kozatch. Gleason voted against going into the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.

Comments

Guinevere 5 years, 8 months ago

We have to pay for the Pilot's legal fees when they were the ones appealing this ruling for more than two years? If you appeal long enough, I guess you'll finally win and feel satisfied. What a waste of time and money on a nitpicky point that didn't make any difference. Pilot: if the school district pays for your lawyers, I'm sure you will donate that taxpayer money back to the school district, right?

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Guinevere 5 years, 8 months ago

Also, how much money are we talking here? That would be newsworthy. The legal fees that the Pilot spent on this plus the legal fees they forced the school board to spend add up to what? $50,000? $70,000? $100,000? I'd like to know what our school district will have to spend on the Pilot. As I recall, the 'violation' of the meetings law boiled down to a technicality. For some reason the Pilot has pursued this ad nauseum. And how many appeals did the Pilot lose before they finally won? I know they they already lost at least one appeal in addition to the original ruling.

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sickofitall 5 years, 8 months ago

Funny thing is, if you try and sue the Pirate and Today about printing an article that is potentially harmful to people, they will call thier lawyers to have the thing thrown out. They can print whatever they want however incorrectly and not be held accountable. This latest development is shameful to say the least.

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Matthew Stoddard 5 years, 8 months ago

Please do not call the Pilot, the "Pirate." Those who actually write for the "Steamboat Pirate & Yesterday," which is the title of the paper that comes out for Ski Town Productions' shows, might take it personally and sue you.

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untamedShrewd 5 years, 8 months ago

Hey paper, let bygones be bygones...don't exhaust needed school monies at the tax payers and KIDs' expense.

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Scott Wedel 5 years, 8 months ago

If the school district didn't want to risk paying for the paper's legal fees then they could have conceded early and made the minutes from the meeting public.

The obvious intent of the law is to have government make the records public unless the government agency is absolutely sure.

The school district by paying for their own lawyers and contesting the case had already put secrecy above educating kids.

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Guinevere 5 years, 8 months ago

Scott W - School board members said at the time they had legal constraints on both sides - they are required by law to NOT discuss certain types of personnel matters in public and yet they also have to abide by this open meetings rule. They consulted with their lawyer throughout to make sure they did it right but they still got called on a technicality. I don't remember all the details but keep in mind - the first two judgments on this case were in their favor.

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aichempty 5 years, 8 months ago

I cannot believe the school board lost this one. I wonder why the Court of Appeals decided to start doing the right thing now? Unbelievable.

I hope the Pilot keeps the money and prospers. The lesson is that the school board should obey the law, and this is a great way to drive that point home. It sends the proper message.

Also, the school board needs to learn how to handle its business without the need to close doors to protect individual egos.

Finally, a lot of "board" members around town need to understand that relying upon the advice of an attorney may protect them individually from certain penalties when they act on board business (any "board" chartered under state law fits this bill), but that doesn't mean the "board" won't have to pay up if the courts find differently. In my experience, "board" attorneys tend to support what they "board" wants to do and stand as adversarial representatives in the event of court action. The board attorney isn't there to prevent the board from breaking the law. The attorney is there to defend the breaches of the law. This case supports my point.

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ElBorracho 5 years, 8 months ago

The paper didn't press this matter to benefit financially; it pressed this matter to try to ensure that the school board - and every other public, taxpayer-funded entity watching this - remembers that their business is open and public. Open-meeting laws exist for a reason. I, for one, want to know how my money is being spent and what decisions are being made. Too bad the school district is going to lose money when times are tight, but that money easily could have been saved by simply conducting business in the open, as it is supposed to. Guinevere, how odd that you are so upset the paper didn't just drop it -- would you rather the group of people spending your tax dollars and educating your children be allowed to run roughshod, making decisions and spending your money in private? Why would you WANT to remain ignorant?

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Scott Wedel 5 years, 8 months ago

If the school board fought to keep the minutes secret to protect a personnel decision then what school district employee is going to be upset that the minutes were released? The former employee Donna Howell?

If educating kids was their primary focus then they should not fight open meeting cases that they cannot win via pretrial motions.

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Guinevere 5 years, 8 months ago

Scott, you did hit one nail on the head. It sounds like the school board could have been sued either way. Donna Howell could have sued them if they had discussed her personnel matter in public. Instead, the Pilot sued them.

ElBor - I guess I have a problem with thousands of school district dollars being spent on lawyers over a matter of semantics in how a meeting was announced. It's not like this was Watergate. I would be upset if I thought something rotten had gone on or that the board was allowed to "run roughshod" in private.

The Open Meetings Law has an important purpose but I sense the Pilot is not pursuing this so maniacally for the "health and transparency of a democracy." How can the local democracy even function properly when the only newspaper in town apparently has a personal ax to grind?

Right or wrong, these were a bunch of volunteers trying to do the job. It's not that easy to get people to be on the school board. Lisa Brown ran uncontested because no one else wanted to do it.

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Scott Wedel 5 years, 8 months ago

They paid Donna Howell a couple of years severance pay and they are worried she is going to sue them? Did they ever ask Donna if she would sign a waiver that she wouldn't sue if the meeting minutes were made public so the school district could stop fighting the lawsuit?

Presumably the paper pursued this case because there is little point in covering local government issues if they hold critical decisions in improperly closed meetings. Note that all three of the appeals judges agreed with the paper so the paper was justified to pursue the appeal.

And the appellate court classified the decision as C.A.R. 35(f) which means those judges saw nothing that suggests to them that the case alters Colorado law or had any interest to the Colorado Supreme Court. Sort of a slapdown to the idea of appealing. Sort of a slapdown to the district judge because rarely is a case both reversed and classified as 35(f). A judicial way for the appellate judges to tell the district judge that his decision was not only wrong, that he had no good reason to be wrong.

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Sara Gleason 5 years, 8 months ago

I'm sure I will get nothing but grief for commenting on this article, but here goes...the media at any level has the responsibility to the public to make sure that the public is informed about any law being broken. These laws are there to protect the public from the very people they elect, and to preserve the responsibility of our government to serve the public and follow the law. The really great thing is that if enough people think that these open meeting laws are just "semantics," we live in a country where you can get that law changed to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I personally think that the use of my tax dollars to preserve the accountability of government, even at a local level, is well worth it. That's what makes losing so many media outlets particularly disturbing to me. Without the media getting information about the way the government is functioning to the public, we are at risk of losing control of the government that is ultimately in place to serve us. I appreciate the Pilot's commitment to the watchdog role in local politics, because letting our elected officials get away with breaking the law can lead to a pretty slippery slope. Where would we draw the line if we allowed some rules to be broken and not others?

Also, for the record, my dad not only voted against this meeting but also refused to attend. I don't want him being sued and having to move in with me!

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Scott Wedel 5 years, 8 months ago

Sara, You seem to misunderstand. Your tax dollars were not used to preserve the accountability of government. They were used to keep the meeting secret.

The newspaper spent their own funds to fight the case.

The school district spent public tax dollars to keep the meeting secret. That money is lost and once they decided to fight the case were always going to be lost to educating kids.

The open meetings law states that if the meeting was improperly closed then that government entity has to pay the legal fees of whomever brought the case. Thus, only because the paper won the case will their legal fees be reimbursed. That is risking a lot with only the hope of breaking even if they win.

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Sara Gleason 5 years, 8 months ago

Scott-

Unless the article and I are mistaken, the school board has been ordered to pay the Pilot's legal fees. Since I assume none of the board members (former and present) are forking over the cash, the tax dollars I (and obviously others) spent are going to cover this cost. And again, thanks to the Pilot for backing the effort to keep our government from breaking its own laws.

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