A lawsuit has been filed against county officials alleging that they violated provisions of the state’s open meetings laws when they met behind closed doors last month.
In the suit filed earlier this week, government watchdog Dennis Simpson claims that not only did the Mesa County Board of Commissioners improperly go into executive session at the end of a regular public meeting July 6, but discussed matters that don’t qualify for the legal right to do so.
The closed-door meeting was to discuss a pending contract bid for an underwriter to refinance a type of bond known as certificates of participation. The county sold those bonds in 2010 to refinance the debt it incurred to pay for the construction of the Mesa County Justice Center in 2000.
At that meeting, County Attorney Patrick Coleman said no underwriter had yet been selected, but the executive session was needed to discuss how the county should proceed in negotiations for a pending contract, which is allowed under the Colorado Open Meetings Law.
According to the lawsuit, however, the commissioners didn’t discuss any contract specifically or contract negotiations in general, but underwriters who were rejected from the bid.
“In the executive session, the participants discussed the negative reaction the rejected underwriter candidates expressed toward the county staff,” the lawsuit says. “In the executive session, the participants discussed voluntary ways to try and appease the rejected candidates’ displeasure.”
During the public portion of that July 6 meeting, Commissioner Rose Pugliese questioned why Coleman was asking to meet behind closed doors, saying normally that would only happen after a bidder has been chosen and a contract was being negotiated.
“Normally we select and then do negotiations, and we haven’t selected,” Pugliese said at the time. “I was a little confused as to why we were doing an executive session about negotiations if we haven’t selected an underwriter yet.”
Coleman immediately assured her that the executive session was to discuss contract negotiation strategies, which is expressly allowed under the law. That law allows closed-door sessions for discussions on certain matters or to receive legal advice, and not for any formal actions or votes.
In a brief statement, Coleman said the county will fight the lawsuit.
“Mesa County disagrees with the allegations in the complaint and with Mr. Simpson’s interpretation of the law, and the county plans on conducting a vigorous defense,” Coleman said in an email.
The suit also contends that the board followed improper procedures in going into executive session, saying the law requires them to be held during public meetings. Minutes of that July meeting approved by the commissioners the following week indicate the meeting adjourned after the executive session, but a recording of the meeting itself clearly shows Commissioner Scott McInnis, this year’s board chairman, adjourning the meeting beforehand.
The suit names the commissioners and Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters because her office is the custodian of commissioner meeting recordings and staffs a clerk to the board, who records them and takes the minutes.
Simpson is asking a judge either to release a recording of the executive session to the public outright, or review it to determine if the commissioners followed the law and then release the entire recording or part of it that doesn’t fall under open meeting exemptions.