City of Steamboat Springs releases some emails related to controversial Iron Horse decision but withholds others
Steamboat Springs — Emails from Steamboat Springs City Hall don’t offer the public much additional insight into how the city and a developer came to an agreement on a controversial settlement to spend $267,000 of public benefit money to buy back an easement the city gave up last year when it sold the Iron Horse Inn.
Citing work product and attorney-client privilege, the city is withholding nearly a third of the 100 emails about the escrow deal that Steamboat Today was seeking in an open records request.
The emails that aren’t being released include communications sent between and among City Attorney Dan Foote, City Manager Gary Suiter, city finance staff, the city’s public relations manager and the two council members who helped to negotiate the escrow spending deal in private.
The emails show the city administration put a lot of thought into crafting a positive message about the decision. But they don’t shed light on how the negotiations, which were held in private to avoid a costly court battle between the city and the developers who bought the Iron Horse, unfolded before the spending agreement was finalized.
In one email, Suiter noted to the council that no written record of the negotiations exists.
He said Monday the easement didn’t come up until later in the negotiations, and it was agreed upon after some other options were passed over.
“We weren’t coming up with acceptable solutions that pleased everyone at the table,” he said. “The (easement) helped cement the deal.”
In recent weeks, the Iron Horse spending decision has faced criticism from some community members, who think the city ultimately had to buy back something that was strongly implied would be given to the city for free when the developers pitched plans for a community tubing launch point and park when they bought the Iron Horse.
Others have faulted a previous council for not doing more to secure the river access in the first place.
“If you wanted the easement, why didn’t you hold onto the easement before you sold the property?” Steamboat resident Bill Jameson asked the City Council at a meeting in December. “I’m perplexed as to how this happened. Maybe the new PR director can put some lipstick on this pig, but it’s disturbing to say the least as a resident to look and see how this went down from the few facts that I have.
“It looks like it could have been done better,” Jameson added.
Jameson said the city needed to learn some lessons from the recent negotiations.
While more than half of the escrow has been spent on buying back the easement between the Yampa River Core Trail and the river, the remainder of the $400,000 in the account will be spent on landscaping at the property, as well as such items as public park benches, picnic tables and bike racks.
Suiter has acknowledged the spending plan was a “negotiated settlement” that kept the city and the developer out of a legal battle that would have had the public benefit money spent instead on mediation.
The emails that were released show Suiter thought the request for the records was unnecessary.
Suiter gave the council a heads up about the records request in an email titled “Dead Horse.”
In it, he noted the city had looked into several options during the negotiations, and he was ready to move on.
Other emails show Suiter’s quote included in the city press release praising the deal went through three sets of revisions with the help of city staff.
City Attorney Dan Foote said, because the emails that have not been released have been labeled as “privileged,” only a majority vote of the City Council could result in their release.
Suiter and City Council President Walter Magill did not advance a request from Steamboat Today earlier this month to release all of the emails about the Iron Horse escrow spending without a lengthy legal review.
The city initially estimated it would take eight hours, and $210 worth of billed staff time, to review 700 emails about the Iron Horse escrow spending.
But the estimate was greatly reduced after a couple hundred duplicates were weeded out from the email search.
The city’s legal team cut down the review time further by agreeing to release a log of all the emails to make it easier to find ones that appeared might serve the public interest.
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