School Board formally settles newspaper lawsuit

District to pay $50K for Pilot & Today's attorneys fees

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— The Steamboat Springs School Board formally accepted a lawsuit settlement offer from the Pilot & Today on Monday.

The settlement was tentatively approved by board members last month on the heels of a March ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the previous School Board violated the state's Open Meetings Law by not properly announcing the intention of its executive session at a Jan. 8, 2007, meeting. As a result of the ruling and settlement offer, the district will pay $50,000 of the newspaper's attorney fees and release the transcripts from the illegal meeting.

The motion to accept the settlement offer was approved 4-1 on Monday, with a couple of board members expressing satisfaction that the lawsuit is now behind them. Board member John DeVincentis was the only dissenting vote, but he wasn't the only one displeased with the outcome.

"I am disappointed that the wording of one motion has led to a three-year ordeal," said board member Denise Connelly, who was president of the board at the time of the illegal executive session. "I'm happy it's over so we can dedicate our resources to education."

Current board President Robin Crossan said she was disappointed the newspaper and the board couldn't reach a "better" agreement.

"I do believe this was probably the best in the end," she said. "I am truly pleased that this is now behind us."

Connelly and Crossan said they looked forward to working with the Pilot in the future. DeVincentis disagreed.

"As far as the working relationship goes with the Pilot, I don't know," he said. "I've always felt like the school district has tried to be amicable with the Pilot and I look at this as an in-your-face move by them to take $50,000 away from our students."

Pilot & Today Editor Brent Boyer said it's the former School Board, not the newspaper, that has cost the district and taxpayers.

"The newspaper reached out to the School Board on two separate occasions before the Jan. 8, 2007, meeting to express its concern that the executive session would not be legal," Boyer said. "The board chose to ignore those warnings and proceed anyway, violating Open Meetings Law in the process.

"While it's unfortunate the previous board chose the path it did, we are pleased this issue has been resolved and that both sides can now move on."

The three-judge Court of Appeals ruled that the previous board - made up of DeVincentis, Connelly, Jeff Troeger, Jerry Kozatch and Pat Gleason - didn't properly convene the closed-door meeting. Gleason was the only board member to vote against going into executive session to discus the then-controversial staff surveys of 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 that the School Board's "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."

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.

In other action Monday, School Board members:

• Delayed a second reading of the district's gift acceptance policy until the June 15 meeting. DeVincentis argued that the policy's language didn't hold the board accountable for public funding.

• Accepted 17 gift letters from the Education Fund Board that would provide funding to the district totaling $1.8 million.

- To reach Jack Weinstein, call 871-4203 or e-mail jweinstein@steamboatpilot.com.

Comments

Scott Wedel 4 years, 11 months ago

I am very disappointed that Denise Connolly thinks this three year ordeal is because of a poorly phrased motion.

The majority opinion, hence the official opinion, said that the wording was so bad that they didn't have to look at the actual contents of the meeting. But that does not mean that better wording would have been sufficient because the third judge said that the motion wasn't that bad, but the contents of the closed session had almost nothing to do with the reason given.

So Denise Connolly still has not acceptable what was the real mistake they made.

And the reason it became a 3 year ordeal is because they fought the case.

As far as I can tell, the main reason that it took 3 years to resolve is because they spent most of the secret meeting speaking to their lawyer. And so the district judge said that lawyer client communications are privileged and not to be released. But he failed to say anything the rest of the secret meeting. And it took until the Court of Appeals to get the confusion and mistake made by the district judge corrected.

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aichempty 4 years, 11 months ago

Not everyone in the community is aware that Ms. Connolly is the wife of a sitting judge.

She never expected anything BUT getting what she wanted from the district court.

I'm surprised the Court of Appeals did the right thing in the end, but it's probably only because ruling against a newspaper that happens to be "in the right" would not have put an end to the case.

Bravo, Pilot, for sticking it out. Use the money for bonuses. You all deserve them.

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freerider 4 years, 11 months ago

The school board had this coming...sad they wasted that money , but maybe this will cure them of there arrogance

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arnonep 4 years, 11 months ago

aichempty, Sure, bonuses all around. DAFT is the word I'm looking for. The only person to come out ahead on this is the paper's lawyer. Read the article! A big thanks to the paper for stealing $50k from the taxpayers. Nice work being the voice of the community, pretty easy when someone else is footing the bill. Shame on the school board, to bad we can't make them pay the bill out of pocket. Maybe if they were decent humans, they would admit their screw up and offer to pay the bill.

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trump_suit 4 years, 11 months ago

I personally support the Pilot on this issue. Both the School Board and the City Council find far too many reasons to hold "Executive Sessions"

John Q. Public elected those officials, and we have a right to know what they discuss and what their opinions and statements are in almost all cases.

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JLM 4 years, 11 months ago

Stupidity, like legal fees, is very expensive!

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