Re-1 hiring may have broken law
Glenwood Springs correspondent
The Roaring Fork School District Re-1 board might have broken the Colorado open meetings law when its members decided to hire Judy Haptonstall as its new superintendent.
According to board member Bob Johnson, during an executive session at its regular meeting March 22, the board met until around midnight to discuss which of the three superintendent candidates it should hire to replace retiring Superintendent Fred Wall. Board member Susan Hakanson said in a phone interview March 28 that the board in closed session decided unanimously to hire Haptonstall.
On April 3, the board publicly passed a resolution offering Haptonstall the job, and she accepted.
But Colorado Press Association attorney Chris Beall said Thursday the board’s closed-door decision to hire Haptonstall was illegal because no public body may take any action ” formal or otherwise ” in an executive session other than to approve the minutes of a previous executive session.
“When a board or body [in executive session] comes to a consensus and the public action is to rubber-stamp a decision that was made in executive session, the open meetings law declares actions taken in executive session are void and of no legal effect,” Beall said. “No decision can be made in closed session.”
Johnson said Thursday that the board held “roundtable” discussions about the candidates, “Then when it came time to go ahead and give our final blessing, we all agreed Judy was the right candidate for the job.”
Hakanson defended the board’s actions in executive session, saying the law requires board members to engage in contract negotiations behind closed doors.
“All we did in executive session was decide who we were going to have contractual negotiations with,” she said Friday.
Such a consensus violates the law, Beall said.
Despite saying March 28 that a decision was reached, Hakanson wrote in an e-mail Friday that “no votes take place in executive session except to accept the executive session minutes.
“While the board understands and believes in complete transparency and open dialogue, certain conversations, such as board discussions surrounding personnel matters and contract negotiations, are confidential under Colorado state law and cannot be discussed in open session,” she wrote in the e-mail.
Another media law attorney, Tom Kelley, with the Faegre and Benson law firm in Denver, agrees with Beall.
“If the decision was made by consensus or straw vote in the executive session, that was a clear violation of the open meetings law,” Kelley said.
Board President Michael Bair said he’s “not really familiar” with Colorado’s open meetings law, but denied any wrongdoing, complaining that “you guys like to ridicule schools in the press.” State law, Bair said, protects people from press ridicule.
Bair said the board did nothing inappropriate because it was following the advice of the Colorado Association of School Boards during the superintendent selection process. “We did everything according to what we believe is state law,” he said.
The board may also have broken the law by not being specific on its March 22 agenda about what was to be discussed in executive session, Beall said. The law requires that public bodies announce as specifically as possible what will be discussed in executive session.
The agenda announced that in both March 22 executive sessions ” one at 4:45 p.m. and another at 8 p.m. ” the board would discuss “personnel” and “contract negotiations.”
Beall said the public must have the opportunity to object to an issue being discussed in closed session, something that is impossible if it’s unknown what kind of contract negotiations or personnel discussions the public is being excluded from.
“If it’s possible to identify the person involved in the personnel matter … they should identify the person,” Beall said. “If the point of the discussion was to consider candidates for superintendent, that’s what they should have said.”
Kelley agreed: “The announcement was inadequate because the statute requires … as much detail as possible without compromising the interests. Because the three finalists and their data must be disclosed before making a decision, there is no reason for anything but full disclosure [regarding] any executive session to discuss them.”
Because the announcement was inadequate, said Steven Zansberg, another Faegre and Benson media law attorney, the board held its superintendent deliberations in an executive session that should have been public. That means the minutes of that executive session are public record, he said.
Bair said the board’s agendas are as specific as its attorneys say they should be.
“Would it have made a difference if it said ‘superintendent?'” Bair asked.
Beall also said superintendent deliberations don’t qualify as a personnel matter because the candidates are theoretically not yet employees of the district. Of the three superintendent candidates, only Haptonstall was a district employee.
Zansberg added that a decision about which candidate to hire does not constitute “contract negotiations,” which involve public information such as salary and benefits.
“We will have our attorneys review the process, and if we need to make a change in the future, we will make a change in the future,” Bair said.
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