Re-1 denies board broke Sunshine Laws
The Roaring Fork School District Re-1 board’s attorney denies the board violated Colorado Sunshine Laws when it decided behind closed doors March 22 which superintendent candidate to hire to replace retiring Superintendent Fred Wall. Three of Colorado’s most prominent media law lawyers who fight for open public records said last week the board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it allegedly came to a consensus in executive session about which superintendent to hire. The board made the decision public April 3 when it passed a resolution offering the superintendent position to Assistant Superintendent Judy Haptonstall. The lawyers – Denver-based attorneys Chris Beall, Steven Zansberg and Tom Kelley – also alleged the board’s March 22 agenda wasn’t specific enough when the listed executive session discussion topics included “personnel” and “contract negotiations” – also allegedly constituting a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act. At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Fred Wall read a letter from the district’s lawyer refuting Beall, Zansberg and Kelley’s assertions point by point. Lawyer Patrick B. Mooney wrote that Beall, Zansberg and Kelley’s opinions are based on the notion that the board “effectively decided in executive session to hire Judy Haptonstall.””It is not true, however, that a board is prohibited from reaching consensus on any issue in executive session,” Mooney wrote, adding that state statute allows boards to determine positions on matters that may be subject to negotiations. He said state law is not “a model of clarity,” but authorizes boards to make such decisions behind closed doors. “In this instance, the Board of Education took formal action to authorize the employment of Ms. Haptonstall as superintendent at a public meeting as it should have,” Mooney wrote. Mooney said that the board didn’t actually decide to hire Haptonstall in executive session, but authorized two board members to contact Haptonstall to discuss her employment, and her promotion to superintendent depended on those discussions. “This process appears to be consistent with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law and is commonly followed by boards of education and other public bodies when they are directly involved in negotiating the terms and conditions upon which an employee will be hired,” Mooney wrote. He added: “The opinions expressed in the Post Independent article (April 10) appear to be based on inaccurate characterizations of the board’s discussions in executive session.”Mooney also refuted Beall’s opinion that superintendent deliberations are not personnel matters to be discussed behind closed doors because superintendent candidates are not yet district personnel. Mooney agreed with Zansberg, Beall and Kelley about how specific the board must be about what they plan to discuss in executive session. He wrote that the board’s meeting agendas do not have to identify the specific subject of an executive session, nor are meeting agendas required to mention executive sessions. Prior to the board’s vote to go into executive session, Mooney wrote, the board must announce in as much detail as possible what will be discussed in executive session without compromising the purpose for excluding the public. “I am not prepared to say that the executive session of the board did not comply with the statute, as I have not seen the agenda or the board minutes, but in this instance, it seems that a more detailed statement for the reason for the executive session may have been called for,” Mooney wrote. When the board approved its minutes for its March 22 meeting, it included a statement for the record saying that no official action on Haptonstall’s hiring occurred in the session, despite board members on March 28 and April 3 saying the decision to hire Haptonstall in executive session was “unanimous.”Lauren Kingsbery, legal counsel for the Colorado Association of School Boards, whose advice the board said it was following when it made its superintendent decision, said Tuesday the board did not violate the law when it made its decision in an executive session, however, she conceded that the board should have been more specific on its agenda March 22 about what board members planned to discuss in executive session. “The law allows them to go into executive session to determine positions relative to matters that are going to be negotiated,” Kingsbery said. “From what I’ve read here (in the Post Independent’s April 10 story), that’s what they did. … The statute does allow the board to be determining their positions on the negotiation.”Zansberg, Beall and Kelley last week said no decisions formal or otherwise could be made in executive session, save for the approval of the minutes of previous executive sessions. When asked if the board should have been more specific on its agenda about executive session discussions, Kingsbery said, “They could have given more particularity … by saying ‘superintendent contract negotiations’.”The board altered its meeting agenda Wednesday according to Mooney’s criticism, responding with a detailed explanation of the two executive sessions it planned to hold. The explanation cites the kind of closed-door contract negotiations it planned to hold and the state statute allowing the discussion. Kingsbery also suggested Bair become educated on Sunshine Laws. Bair said last week that he is not very familiar with the Open Meetings Act. “I would hope he would be interested in training,” Kingsbery said. “We would be happy to visit with him about it.”Contact Bobby Magill: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org