Steamboat Springs As was reported in Tuesday's newspaper, the Steamboat Springs School Board voted, 4-1, during its Monday night meeting to accept a lawsuit settlement offer from the Steamboat Pilot & Today. The board's vote brought an end to an unfortunate but entirely preventable episode grounded squarely in the democratic principles of open government.
I understand why some readers are upset about the settlement, specifically that the School Board will pay $50,000 toward the newspaper's legal fees. But I also believe any anger directed at the newspaper is misguided.
One of a newspaper's most important roles is as a government watchdog. The media are expected to play that role at all levels - from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to town hall meeting rooms in cities across the country. Unfortunately, there are times when our elected officials and representatives disregard the law, whether as a result of ignorance of the law or a calculated attempt to circumvent it. And usually, if the media aren't there to call those actions into question, no one else will.
Such was the case with the Steamboat Springs School Board's Jan. 8, 2007, meeting. But this was no "gotcha" moment. Rather, we made every reasonable attempt to alert the School Board to our concerns before its members ever met behind closed doors that night.
Our concern was in the wording of the board's reason to enter into executive session. Open Meetings Law makes clear the permissible topics that can be discussed in secret, and it also states that public bodies must be as specific as possible in detailing the topic of the executive session. The law exists for a very good reason - so that the public's business is conducted in public.
On the night in question, the board's agenda called for an executive session for a personnel matter related to "access to information." That afternoon, the newspaper contacted then board President Denise Connelly to express its concern that the executive session may be in violation of the law. That night, during the meeting, our education reporter stood up and, reading from the Open Meetings Law, reiterated the newspaper's belief that the executive session was not legal. Both of our efforts were rebuffed or ignored.
After the meeting, we requested the School Board turn over the tapes from the executive session. It refused.
Our good-faith efforts squandered, the newspaper was left with a decision: allow a local government body to get away with an illegal meeting or pursue legal action to have the transcript of the closed-door meeting released. We chose the latter, not because of any specific agenda or to create financial hardship for our public school system, but to stand up for the taxpayers and residents of Steamboat Springs and their right to know what their elected representatives were doing.
At the district court level, visiting Senior Judge Thomas Ossola rendered what we believed was an incorrect verdict, an aspect of which he acknowledged when he reversed his ruling that the School Board was entitled to attorneys fees. His ruling also failed to address the paper's contention that the executive session wasn't properly announced.
Contradictory to what a few in the community have alleged, we appealed the case only once - to the Colorado Court of Appeals. On March 26, the three-judge Court of Appeals ruled definitively that the School Board broke the law. The majority opinion was that the board's executive session notice failed to state that the intent of the secret meeting was to discuss the controversial staff surveys of district administrators. The two-judge majority also ruled the notice failed to note that the personnel matter referred specifically to former Superintendent Donna Howell. Finally, the majority opinion stated that the board failed to announce it would confer with its attorney during the closed-door meeting.
In a special concurrence, Judge Russell Carparelli disagreed with the finding of a notice violation but 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 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 it involved the board's desire to keep its views about the survey results secret.
Four judges ruled on this case. Three of them found that the School Board clearly violated Open Meetings Law. As a result of the Court of Appeals decision, the district was ordered to pay the newspaper's attorneys fees and release the transcript from the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.
We hoped it wouldn't reach this point. After the erroneous District Court ruling, we made a couple of settlement offers to the School Board. They were rejected. One of the offers included this warning:
"Today, the newspaper is willing to settle this case for $13,000. The School Board surely understands that when the newspaper ultimately prevails on appeal, the price for this litigation will be on the order of five times that amount. Thus, settling today for less than 20 percent of what the School Board would ultimately have to pay is ultimately in the best interests of the taxpayers of Steamboat Springs."
Whether buoyed by the District Court ruling or simply unwilling to negotiate with the newspaper, the board of Connelly, John DeVincentis, Jeff Troeger and Jerry Kozatch chose to jeopardize taxpayer money over their decision to meet illegally out of the public eye. Pat Gleason, who also was on the board at the time, was the lone member to vote against going into the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.
There's no excuse for elected officials disregarding Open Meetings Law. Quite simply, you ought to be able to explain why you must meet in secret. And if you can't, you ought to meet in public. I think all government bodies should be held to the same standard.
The Pilot & Today has never been interested in creating financial hardship for the school district or any other entity. The Open Meetings Law exists for the benefit of the people. Although it's the newspaper that often takes on the responsibility of standing up for open, transparent government and challenging public bodies that don't live up to those requirements, our legal efforts ultimately are for the people.
If there's any fault for the situation the district now finds itself in, it lies with the members of the previous School Board who violated Colorado's Open Meetings Law and elected to gamble taxpayer money in court.