Behind closed doors: Local governing bodies meet in executive sessions 36 times in 2020

Boards governing Snowmass, Pitkin County and Aspen collectively meet for 60 hours behind closed doors and out of the public’s view

Local governing bodies collectively spent 60 hours behind closed doors in 2020 discussing matters concerning the public.

An annual review of executive sessions conducted by Aspen City Council, Snowmass Village Town Council and the Board of Pitkin County Commissioners shows that combined, they held 36 closed-door meetings last year.

The commissioners held the most meetings, with 20, followed by Aspen City Council with 10 and Snowmass Village Town Council with six.

For commissioners and Aspen elected officials, they held fewer executive sessions in 2020 than in previous years.

County Attorney John Ely said typically the commissioners meet out of the public’s view at least 24 times, or twice a month, in a year.

It was lower last year due to scheduling conflicts and disruptions due to COVID-19.

Every other week, Ely puts a two-hour placeholder on commissioners’ meeting agenda with executive sessions and they typically fill that time with discussion on topics that were noticed and publicly announced prior to going into the closed-door meeting.

In 2020, commissioners spent a collective 35 hours discussing the public’s business in executive session on matters that span everything from negotiations with airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration concerning the proposed airport expansion to ongoing litigation and property acquisition to COVID public health orders and enforcement, and personnel matters, to name a few out of dozens of topics listed on last year’s agendas.

Personnel matters were the subject of executive sessions for all three boards, as city and county managers and attorneys were evaluated on their performance.

Of the six hours in six meetings the Snowmass Village Town Council met behind closed doors, four of them were dedicated to performance reviews of Town Manager Clint Kinney and Town Attorney John Dresser.

The commissioners spent 3.5 hours over three executive sessions to evaluate the performance of County Manager Jon Peacock and Ely.

Aspen City Council discussed City Manager Sara Ott’s contract and performance over four meetings last year, with the longest discussion behind closed doors at just over four hours on Dec. 8.

City Attorney Jim True said he was not present for that meeting, as it was decided it wasn’t appropriate for him to be part of that discussion.

He was present for the other executive sessions that mostly focused litigation with Lee Mulcahy, an embattled resident of a deed-restricted, subsidized home in the city-developed Burlingame Ranch subdivision, as well as other lawsuits and some property acquisitions and sales.

Aspen City Council met in executive session 10 times for a total of 19 hours.

Government attorneys are required to cite the particular provision in the state statute under which the governing body is meeting in executive session, as well as be as specific as possible about the topic it is discussing, according to Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

“You want to know why they are closing the door or going into the Zoom room,” he said. “And you hope they are not straying from the topics of what’s allowed under the open meetings law.”

Glenwood Springs City Council got in trouble last year when it was discovered through the release of an audio recording of an illegal executive session held in May in which elected officials discussed topics not noticed, including the local government’s COVID-19 response.

According to the Opening Meetings Law, a board must have an electronic recording of an executive session except if the board’s legal counsel certifies that the discussion involves a matter of attorney-client privilege.

Last year the town of Basalt was found culpable, along with Basalt Town Council, for violating the state’s Open Meetings Law for not properly noticing executive sessions.

Also in 2020, the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board violated Colorado Open Meetings Laws when it met behind closed doors and discussed the executive director’s pay.

And just last week, Pitkin County admitted its failure to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Law for failing to broadcast the commissioners adopting a motion to go into executive session in October.

“It seems like a small thing but it’s so the public has an idea of what they are talking about,” Roberts said.

Record keeping of executive session minutes also is a bit on shaky ground for some jurisdictions, as information is not easily attainable online.

Local officials have recognized that shortcoming and are working to fix that.

True acknowledged that a topic in the first two executive sessions held in 2020 was vague in describing property acquisition because he did not disclose the location.

He defended that, and said sometimes if a property that the city is interested in buying becomes public it can drive up the price and skew the market.

In past years, Aspen City Council averaged between 11 and 12 executive sessions annually.

“That isn’t a conscious decision, it’s just interesting that it works out that way,” True said. “We try not to have executive sessions if possible.”

Dresser, who has worked for Snowmass Village for two decades, said executive sessions have been rare.

“Most of the people who I have worked for believe it should be done in public,” he said.