Brent Boyer: Fighting for transparency

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Brent Boyer

Contact Editor Brent Boyer at 871-4221 or e-mail bboyer@SteamboatToday.com.

— 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.

Comments

Guinevere 5 years, 7 months ago

This is ridiculous. There is some serious misinformation in this column. Brent, you need to print an account of all this written by someone from the other side of the lawsuit. And it needs to be in their words, not edited so as to please the Pilot. It's bad enough to see $90,000 of school money go to lawyers, but then we get the Pilot's version only. You guys seem to exist in your own little echo chamber where you are fighting the noble fight for the foundations of democracy itself. Give me a break! The personal involvement and biases by Pilot staff were huge. And the perspective from the school board is completely missing. I want to see the other side of the story printed.

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honestabe 5 years, 7 months ago

well done, well said. thanks to the pilot for looking out for us, the people, against the rule breaking school board. They should have had the sense to admit their mistake and save us all a lot of money, they had many chances.

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Fred Duckels 5 years, 7 months ago

Brent, This sounds good to me, but I find that media coverage in the political scene is corrupt. The percentage of journalists with a left leaning view is staggering. We have the media, academia, and public employees with their unions to indoctrinate our youth from a very young age. I would like to know what happened to the watchdog. One big happy family is prone to big mistakes, and the media is a big part of that. If the conservatives had a VP and speaker of this quality we would have a revolution. We cannot have a media this corrupt, presenting the public with a cheer leading effort.

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Chad James 5 years, 7 months ago

I'd love to see a valiant move...something big. Something like gifting that $50K settlement to the Education Fund Board to use for computers, or using those legal proceeds for some common good.

Fred, I couldn't agree more that media coverage of the political scene holds significant bias. However, if we remember that the "old" work of newspapers (reporting the news), is different than the "new" work of newspapers (sell advertising to stay afloat amidst a sea of significantly more nimble options), then we'll do our best to look elsewhere for "news".

There is no such thing as "unbiased" reporting anymore. It's our job to determine which of the biases we agree with.

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Guinevere 5 years, 7 months ago

Brent goes on about how "one of a newspaper's most important roles is as a government watchdog." But the Pilot is only a watchdog when it suits their purposes. They were blatantly awol in balanced coverage on the original story here. Brent claims the Pilot made a couple of offers to settle. From what I heard those offers were impossible for the board to accept because they would be breaking the law. They are legally bound not to release certain things in public just as they have to follow the Open Meetings Law on the other side. I don't see anything about the board's attempts to settle that were rebuffed by the Pilot. He also says the Pilot only appealed the case once. We've heard some different accounts. Maybe this is another problem with "wording." "Motion to reconsider", lose that, then appeal. One appeal shouldn't take three and a half years. But that's why I'd like to see the other side of the story written by someone who can spell out all the details, not just the ones convenient for the Pilot to broadcast.

So where is the $90,000 transcript of this meeting? Let's see it and see what these secretive plotters were up to.

Bottom line is the Pilot was a bully against a school board of volunteer citizens who were trying to deal with a difficult situation. The lawsuit is basically about a technicality, or the words used to announce a meeting. It was not worth $90,000. It's almost unbelievable that in a town the size of ours, the local newspaper would do this.

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