Colo. court permits student’s lawsuit over trustees’ closed meetings to proceed

COLORADO — A state district court has denied the Mesa State College Board of Trustees’ request to dismiss a lawsuit alleging it violated state open-meetings laws during its search a new college president.

Megan Fromm, former editor of a Mesa State College student newspaper, the Criterion, believes that the board illegally entered into executive session to discuss the procedure for finding a new president for the college in Grand Junction. She filed a lawsuit against the board in early March after it denied her open-records request for the audio tapes of the closed meeting.

“The court agrees with the plaintiff that the legislature intended that one specific type of employment matter, that of establishing procedures for hiring a college president, may not be decided in executive session by a search committee,” stated District Judge Amanda Bailey’s July 2 ruling.

Bailey also called the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws “complex and poorly drafted.”

Fromm is asking the court to privately inspect the tapes of the executive session to see if matters that should have been discussed in public were made in the closed meeting. The ruling also said, however, that the decision to do a private review of the tapes would be premature at this point in the case.

The judge ordered Fromm and the board to try to reach a resolution for the dispute before the matter goes to trial.

In denying the board’s motion to dismiss, the court agreed with Fromm’s assertion that the board’s public adoption of a presidential search committee was a “rubber stamping” of a decision the board made behind closed doors.

“Colorado law prohibits this type of evasion of public debate and scrutiny, where all meaningful discussion and decision occur behind closed doors,” the ruling stated.

Board member Jamie Hamilton said the board has not discussed the ruling. Its next scheduled meeting is Aug. 18 and 19

Hamilton said he agreed with the judge’s statement that the laws on open meetings are confusing and that they need to be revisited.

“I’m torn there are some decisions that need to be made behind closed door in executive session versus making sure access is given to guarantee a free press,” he said.

Fromm said she was happy with this first step in the case, but said, “The real nuts and bolts still need to be worked out.”

She said she is not challenging the board’s decision to hire Tim Foster as president, just the legality of the executive sessions that led to his hiring.

Because the board is only about one year old, Fromm sees the case as a “precedent issue.”

“I really hope that there is a consensus we can come to of how a board is expected to operate, she said. “The best thing that can come out of this is for the board to say, ‘Yeah, we recognize the best thing for us to do is to work publicly as much as possible.'”

Both Fromm’s lawyer and the board’s were unavailable to comment.

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