Closed student senate meeting violates Colo. Sunshine Law, student newspaper argues

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:45 p.m., on 11/20/2014, to include a comment from ASCSU Vice President Lance Li Puma.

COLORADO — The student newspaper and student government at Colorado State University have come to different conclusions on whether the student government is a public body subject to open meetings laws following a closed, executive session regarding the impeachment of a student senator on Nov. 5.

The Rocky Mountain Collegian’s editor-in-chief, Kate Winkle, said the Associated Students of Colorado State University is an official governing body and that their meetings are required to be open to the press and public under the state’s open meetings law. But the university’s executive director of Public Affairs and Communications, Mike Hooker, argued that ASCSU is “not a state public body or a local public body, as those terms are defined in the Colorado Open Meetings Law.”

Based on it’s function and purpose, Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he believes the student government is subject to the state’s open meetings law because it is recognized as a formally constituted body of the state by the CSU Board of Governors.

“So you’re talking about something that was created by CSU, or at least authorized by CSU, and something that has been given a decision making or advisory function,” he said.

The closed meeting that sparked the debate was held to consider the impeachment of Sen. Kwon Yearby, who was accused of harassment and intimidation, The Collegian reported.

“Membership in ASCSU — like any student organization — is a privilege and can be lost as a result of certain types of conduct,” ASCSU Vice President Lance Li Puma told the newspaper.

Li Puma told the Student Press Law Center he stands by the decision to go into executive session.

“The 44th Senate followed ASCSU’s Constitution and Bylaws all the way through and there is no question about following our process,” he said. “As with any process though, we have noticed inefficiencies and will be making amendments to find a solution.”

The student newspaper had been covering the impeachment proceedings for several weeks leading up to the vote, Winkle said. When the reporter covering the story learned that part of the meeting was going to be carried out in a closed executive session, he alerted his editor who then brought it to the managing editor and Winkle’s attention.

Winkle and other members of The Collegian sat in the open portion of the senate meeting and protested the closed executive session by citing the state’s sunshine law. They also looked into ASCSU’s constitution and bylaws for any justification of a closed session.

“We went up there thinking we could kind of reason them out of holding this closed meeting to impeach him,” Winkle said. “And so when they called for the executive session I basically just stood up and said, ‘Hey I don’t think you can do this. I can’t find anything in your constitution or bylaws of what an executive session is.’”

While the state’s open meetings law does allow public boards to go into an executive cession to discuss personnel matters or negotiations with employees, Roberts said the exemption would not apply because Yearby was an elected official.

“It’s not like this is an employee,” he said. “This is a fellow elected member.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.