Colo. student paper sues student government over closed meetings

COLORADO Editors of a student newspaper atthe University of Northern Colorado have sued the school’s student government,claiming representatives violated the state open-meetings law by illegallyholding closed meetings and repeatedly deliberating on matters in private thatshould be discussed publicly.The lawsuit, filed April 28 by editors ofthe Mirror, alleges multiple violations of the Colorado Open MeetingsLaw, including charges that as early as fall 2003, the Student RepresentativeCouncil held closed-door, unannounced meetings for 30 minutes prior to thebody’s weekly regular meeting. The lawsuit also claims that the councildid not comply with the law’s requirements for holding executive sessions duringits Nov. 19 and Feb. 4 meetings. The lawsuit asks the Weld CountyDistrict Court to rule that the council violated the open-meetings law and toorder the council to comply with the law in the future.Council PresidentSteve Gustafson, a defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to requests forcomment. Brandon Houtchens, a lawyer who advises the council, declined tocomment on the lawsuit and referred questions to the Colorado attorney general’soffice, which is expected to provide an attorney for the council. A spokesmanfor the attorney general declined to comment. Heath Urie, incomingeditor in chief of the Mirror and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said thenewspaper’s lawyer attempted to inform Gustafson of the alleged violationsseveral times, but the council president continued to ignore the law.”Wehave tried to deal with it outside of legal action,” Urie said. “But we believethe students have the right to know what their elected officials are doingbehind closed doors when it involves the students and decisions that affectthem.”At issue in the suit are allegations that the council illegallyheld a closed meeting on Sept. 24 and failed to comply with open-meetings lawrequirements during executive sessions on Nov. 19 and Feb. 4.Thenewspaper contends that before the council’s meeting on Sept. 24, it failed toannounce in public the topic of the private meeting and did not vote in publicon whether to enter into executive session, which the open-meetings lawrequires. When a newspaper reporter attempted to gain access to the Sept. 24meeting, the council refused.Gustafson did not respond to an Oct. 13letter from the newspaper’s lawyer informing him of the alleged open-meetingslaw violations. He was quoted in the Oct. 17 edition of the Mirror assaying, “We make all business-oriented meetings public.” Less than a monthlater, however, Gustafson was quoted in the Mirror on Nov. 10 as sayingthat the council would no longer meet in private prior to its regularlyscheduled public meetings. Then on Nov. 19, the council met in privateto discuss whether a council vice president, who had been charged with drunkendriving, violated any council rules and whether he should continue serving onthe council. During the executive session, the council adopted a statement aboutthe representatives’ DUI charge “as their official stance” on the issue, thelawsuit states.Then on Feb. 4, the council met in private to hold a”straw vote” to see if there was a two-thirds majority to publicly appoint arepresentative to a vacant seat on the council, the lawsuit states.Thenewspaper’s lawyer sent another letter to Gustafson on Feb. 19 about thecouncil’s alleged violations of the open-meetings law, but he did notreply.”At that point, we became so frustrated with the council notfollowing the law that … we resorted to legal action,” Urie said. Thenewspaper must prove that the open-meetings law applies to the council, whichdoes not have any decision-making power but recommends policies, including theallocation of $3 million in student fees, to the university’s administration andBoard of Trustees. The open-meetings law applies to any “board,committee, commission or other advisory, policy making, rule making,decision-making, or formally constituted body of any governing board of a stateinstitution of higher education.”According to the lawsuit, the councilis “formally constituted by UNC’s Board of Trustees” to “participate in thedevelopment and recommendation of educational and student policies and thegovernance of the University.” The council allocated $37,500 in studentfees to the newspaper last year. Urie said student fees make up about 15 percentof the newspaper’s budget and help pay for the paper’s printingcosts.Urie and Houtchens were not aware of any prior cases involvingColorado university student governments and the open-meetings law.