Editors sue student council for closed meetings

COLORADO — Editors of a University of Northern Colorado student newspaper are suing the university’s student government because they believe representatives repeatedly violated the state open-meetings law. 

Student government leaders, however, believes the law does not apply to them.

The Mirror’s former editor in chief Jessica Perciante, current editor in chief Heath Urie and current managing editor Christopher Marcheso allege that the university’s Student Representative Council and its president, Steve Gustafson, knowingly violated state open-meetings laws when they conducted closed-door meetings on Sept. 24, 2003, Nov. 19, 2003, and Feb. 4, 2004. 

The newspaper also alleges that beginning in fall 2003, the SRC held closed meetings 30 minutes prior to scheduled weekly meetings and did not announce the meetings’ topics in public, did not hold a public vote to go into executive session and did not get the two-thirds vote needed to close the session.

The lawsuit, filed April 28, asks the Weld County District Court to rule that the council violated the open-meetings law and to order the council to comply with the law in the future.

The newspaper must prove that the open-meetings law applies to the council, which recommends policies, including the allocation of $3 million in student fees, to the university’s administration and board of trustees. 

In a legal response to the editors’ lawsuit, the SRC does not deny the allegations that it held closed sessions on the dates in question. The SRC does, however, claim that because it is not involved in formulating state governmental policy or making state governmental decisions, it is not subject to the Colorado Open Meetings Law.

“The SRC is a student organization within the University’s institutional framework and is not in and of itself a public entity as the term is used in the COML,” states the SRC’s brief.

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 state institution of higher education.”

According to The Mirror’s lawsuit, the council is “formally constituted by UNC’s Board of Trustees” to “participate in the development and recommendation of educational and student policies and the governance of the University.” 

Urie said the newspaper’s lawyer attempted to inform Gustafson of the alleged violations several times, but the council president continued to ignore the law.

“We have tried to deal with it outside of legal action,” Urie said. “But we believe the students have the right to know what their elected officials are doing behind closed doors when it involves the students and decisions that affect them.”

Gustafson did not respond to an Oct. 13 letter from the newspaper’s lawyer informing him of the alleged open-meetings law violations. He was quoted in the Oct. 17 edition of The Mirror as saying, “We make all business-oriented meetings public.” 

Less than a month later, however, Gustafson was quoted in The Mirror on Nov. 10 as saying that the council would no longer meet in private prior to its regularly scheduled public meetings. 

On Nov. 19, the council met in private to discuss whether a council vice president, who had been charged with drunken driving, violated any council rules and whether he should continue serving on the council, the lawsuit states. 

During the executive session, the council adopted a statement about the representatives’ DUI charge “as their official stance” on the issue, the lawsuit 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 a representative to a vacant seat on the council, the lawsuit states.

The newspaper’s lawyer sent another letter to Gustafson on Feb. 19 about the council’s alleged violations of the open-meetings law, but he did not reply.

“At that point, we became so frustrated with the council not following the law that … we resorted to legal action,” Urie said. 

A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11.

Urie, Marcheso and current news editor Andrew Rosenthal are also suing the university’s board of trustees, claiming that the board cut the newspaper’s funding because of its content.

The editors allege the board approved a recommendation from the SRC to reduce of The Mirror’s funding by 40 percent because of articles that were critical of the board and the SRC. 

The SRC recommends to the university’s board of trustees how to allocate student fee money among student groups. The board has the power to modify the SRC’s recommendations.