Student newspaper accuses Colo. college board of violating open-meetings law

COLORADO — The student newspaper at Mesa State Collegein Grand Junction is considering suing the school’s Board of Trustees forviolations of the Colorado Open Meetings Law that allegedly occurred during theboard’s search for a new college president.The Criterion,Mesa State’s student newspaper, believes that the board illegally enteredinto executive session and may have discussed aspects of the search in privatewhich are prohibited by Colorado law. To address these concerns, the paperformally requested audio tapes of the board’s Nov. 18 and 19 executivesessions in which it discussed the presidential search, said Megan Fromm, editor in chief of the Criterion. After theCriterion denied the board’s request for a time extension, theboard refused to hand over the tapes to the paper, claiming state law exemptsfrom disclosure records of executive session discussions.The boardmaintains that it did not violate state open-meetings law. Under theColorado Open Meetings Law, university boards of trustees and other governingagencies are allowed to go into private executive session to discuss personnelmatters or matters of privilege, such as litigation. The group is required tomake an affirmative vote in public to enter into executive session, and theColorado Open Meetings Law requires boards to maintain minutes of theirmeetings, including what was discussed in executive sessions, said John Zakhem,the Criterion‘s attorney.In a Feb. 19 letter to Frommdenying the Criterion‘s request for the tapes, Trustee CarolNesland maintained that ”the executive sessions were properlyinitiated” as mandated by Colorado statute. However, the vote to go intoexecutive session was ”inadvertently omitted from the minutes because theperson assigned to record and transcribe minutes was not present during theseportions of the open meetings,” wrote Nesland, who is the custodian ofexecutive session records. Nesland and other trustees did not respond torequests for comment.”I would say that’s more troublesomethan just plain forgetting to vote,” Fromm said.She added that itseems ”just negligent” to hold a meeting without the designatedrecorder being present.The paper requested the tapes to gain insightinto the board’s search for a new president of the college. Under statelaw, a university board of trustees is not allowed to discuss ”job searchgoals, including the writing of the job description, [or] deadlines forapplications” in private. The paper suspects that the content of theboard’s executive session discussions may have been contrary to the law,Fromm said.”[The Criterion staff members] are hoping toopen up the process here We basically feel like our job is to make sureeverything was done to the letter of the law,” Fromm said.Theboard claims that it was ”not meeting as a search committee,” duringthe sessions and that ”the presidential search was discussed, includingjob descriptions, deadlines, and selection procedures, but nothing wasestablished or otherwise voted upon by the Board during these executivesessions,” Nesland’s letter said.The Mesa State communityhas been upset by the board’s actions during the college’spresidential search. Faculty and students have complained that the process hasnot been transparent enough and that the community of has had little say in thedecision-making process.”[The student body] feels pretty muchdisenfranchised by this whole process,” Fromm said.The problem wasexacerbated by the board’s Feb. 18 announcement of Tim Foster, director ofthe state Department of Higher Education, as the only finalist for the position,according to The Denver Post.The Criterion is pursuing itslegal options, and hopes to file suit against the board within the next week.However, Fromm is not entirely preoccupied with winning or losing incourt.”If it turns out in the end that a judge reviews it andfinds everything [was done] according to the law, we’ll be happy. We wantto make sure we’re doing our job, just as your typical watchdog ofgovernment,” Fromm said.