A discussion and vote to ratify Snowmass Village’s contract with interim Town Manager Gary Suiter was set for the Feb. 3 Town Council meeting after a query by the Snowmass Sun.
Suiter, who has been interim town manager since August, proposed a contract extending his services that the council authorized Mayor Bill Boineau to sign during a closed-door meeting on Jan. 21. That was after the council was supposed to vote on a different contract at its Jan. 6 meeting, when it continued the discussion after another lengthy private meeting.
Steve Zansberg, an attorney and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said that the town of Snowmass Village might be in violation of the open-meetings law without a public discussion and vote. The Town Council is limited by law as to what can be discussed in private meetings, known in government parlance as “executive sessions.” Topics include personnel matters, seeking advice from the town attorney and matters subject to negotiation, according to the municipal code. The council cannot adopt any policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action during a closed-door session.
“It sounds to me that they made a decision in executive session that they’re not lawfully allowed to have made,” said Zansberg. “It’s pretty clear that if they were meeting to approve the prior agreement, they noticed it for discussion and voting; they acknowledged that they needed to do that in a public meeting.”
Suiter pushed to put the former contract, one that would have hired him full time as town manager, on the Jan. 6 agenda. As of 11:24 a.m. on Jan. 28, Suiter said the new contract was not on the council’s next agenda.
“It is currently not on the agenda,” Suiter said. “The item on the next agenda is the previous full-time contract offer. Not sure how that item will play out, and it’s a moot point.”
However, two hours later, Town Attorney John Dresser said the new contract would be considered in place of the former.
“That contract will be on the Town Council agenda on Feb. 3, 2014, for discussion and ratification in place of the item entitled ‘Direction to Staff to Submit an Offer of Employment to the Interim Town Manager’ as a result of the negotiations on Jan. 6 and 21 that rendered the previous title/action moot,” Dresser said.
Dresser followed up by saying the replacement was not prompted by the query.
“The item has been on the agenda for February 3 since it was continued on Jan 6th,” Dresser said. “It had not been re-titled at the time the packet was prepared for the meeting on Jan. 21 as the result of the negotiations could not be known until after the executive session on Jan. 21.”
Following up with a full discussion and vote in a public meeting would be one way to rectify the situation, Zansberg said. The discussion is important because a government body cannot “rubber stamp” a decision.
“The Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have said on repeated occasions that a public body cannot meet in the open after having made a decision behind closed doors and merely rubber stamp a decision that they already had made outside of public view without violating the open-meetings law,” Zansberg said.
After the private meeting on Jan. 6, the council also publicly requested that Suiter propose a contract extending his services, Dresser said. Suiter’s contract was set to expire at the end of January.
The contract that the council and Suiter have now agreed to makes his service effective for three months at a time and is renewed automatically after each period unless the town or he terminates it.
In a case in Larimer County, a judge ruled that deciding whom to hire is separate from negotiating terms of a contract, Zansberg said.
“The issue of who to hire is a decision they should have made in public,” Zansberg said. “The decision of what the terms of that contract should say may well be appropriate for a meeting with their negotiator.”
The Town Council was split, 3-2, on whether to extend a full-time offer to Suiter, which he said made him uncomfortable with accepting it.
“We wanted him, at least the majority wanted him, as our town manager, and this was the only way he felt comfortable doing it,” said Councilman Fred Kucker, who with Councilwoman Markey Butler and Boineau formed the majority. Councilman Chris Jacobson, in the minority with Councilman Jason Haber, said he thinks the community has a right to understand the process behind the council’s decision. Kucker disagreed.
“The decision is ours,” Kucker said.
Kucker also pointed out that the council sought public opinion by creating residents and staff-advisory groups and holding a cocktail party for members of the community while the finalists for the position were on site for their interviews.
The majority of the residents favored the other finalist, Clinton Kinney, city manager of Fruita, according to Bob Purvis, who joined other business people and residents in the advisory group.
Kucker said that a vote was not reported to the council during its discussions.
“Their job was not to vote, just like the staff’s job was not to vote,” Kucker said. “We weren’t asking them who they wanted. We were asking them what they perceived were the strengths and weaknesses (of each).”