Arguments on open meeting law heard in case of fired Douglas County superintendent

The guts of Colorado’s open meeting law were pulled out, inspected and chewed over in a courtroom Friday, as a judge heard arguments over whether the board of education in Douglas County violated state statute in how it sacked former Superintendent Corey Wise earlier this month.

Douglas County District Judge Jeffrey Holmes announced at the end of the more than three-hour hearing that he would issue a written ruling on a lawsuit requesting a preliminary injunction to keep the board from violating the open meeting law in the future.

He did not say when he would release his decision.

Friday’s hearing was the first since a lawsuit was filed earlier this month by Robert Marshall, a parent of children who attend the Douglas County School District.

Just four of the seven directors on the district’s Board of Education are named in the lawsuit. The members — Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar – were elected to the board as a conservative majority in November.

The lawsuit alleges the four gathered in a series of one-on-one meetings in late January to discuss replacing Wise, who was fired without cause during a contentious meeting on Feb. 4. They have denied violating Colorado’s open meeting law.

Wise was told last month that if he did not resign “four members of the (Board of Education) had already collectively decided” to terminate his contract, according to the motion for a preliminary injunction, which seeks to stop the directors from holding a series of small meetings to discuss board business privately.

Marshall, of Highlands Ranch, filed the suit against the members after the board’s three minority directors – Elizabeth Hanson, David Ray and Susan Meek – claimed their colleagues violated the state’s open meeting law in their efforts to dismiss Wise.

The allegations and Wise’s firing drew two protests by hundreds of students and teachers in the 63,000-student district.

Attorney Steven Zansberg argued against the board majority in court, saying the four directors purposefully communicated with one another in a one-on-one “daisy-chain” manner over Wise’s future employment in the district so as not to trigger the open meeting law.

According to the statute, if at least three school board members meet to discuss public business, then the public and other board members must be notified and the meeting made public. This includes if it is a meeting in person, by phone, email or text.

“(The law) doesn’t say that the gathering has to happen simultaneously,” Zansberg argued.

By communicating by phone amongst each other individually and leaving no written record of their discussions, Zansberg said the board majority deprived the public of witnessing the “formation of public policy.”

“The public is completely in the dark about these discussions,” he said.

But attorney Matthew Hegarty defended the board majority Friday, arguing that Colorado’s open meeting law allows elected officials to “check in on each other” in private one-on-one communications, as long as no decision on a business matter is made.

He said the discussions between the four directors were “utterly non-decisive, utterly non-deliberative.”

“No decision was made, no commitment was procured,” Hegarty said.

A preliminary injunction from the court, he said, would create “paralysis” on elected bodies in Douglas County and have a chilling effect on their members’ ability to have legitimate discussions in private about matters in front of them.

Peterson took the stand Friday and testified that he and Williams met with Wise on Jan. 28 to tell him the board wanted to move in a different direction with regards to district leadership. But until the public meeting a week later, he said no decision had been made regarding Wise’s future with the district.

“No decision was made about the superintendent until the fourth (of February),” Peterson said.

Williams testified that she was simply expressing her opinion about Wise during those phone calls, and that she didn’t make a decision about his future “until I voted.” But she acknowledged that in her meeting with Peterson and Wise, the only options offered to the superintendent were resignation, retirement or termination.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the four directors clearly violated the state’s open meeting law even if they never met or communicated as a foursome or made a final decision.

“It’s not just a matter of making a decision — it’s a matter of how they met to evade the requirements of the open meeting law,” he said.

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