Newspaper asks city to reconsider Iron Horse records request denial
Attorney disagrees with city's refusal to release Iron Horse proposals
Steamboat Springs — A lawyer representing Steamboat Today is objecting to the city of Steamboat Springs’ decision to deny the public access to the real estate proposals for the Iron Horse Inn that City Council is passing over.
Fearing the release of the proposals from seven other bidders could interfere with the city’s pending sale of the hotel to Ski Town Commercial for $3.05 million, a majority of city council members Tuesday voted to have city staff deny an open records request from Steamboat Today.
After denying the records request, the council voted without any discussion to approve the first reading of the sale of the hotel to the buyers who want to renovate it and maintain it as workforce housing.
Before the sale is finalized, Steamboat Today wants to give the public a look at the other options for the property the council has only discussed in a series of executive sessions.
The council wants to keep the other proposals private until after a public petition period has passed and the sale has closed.
Council members claim releasing those proposals before the sale to Ski Town Commercial closes would harm the public’s interest by potentially opening up the sale of the hotel to public negotiations.
In a letter to City Clerk Julie Franklin, Chris Beall, the paper’s First Amendment attorney, wrote the city should reverse its decision and release the records because the city’s denial of them is “based on a clearly erroneous understanding of law.”
He added the public interest is served, not harmed, by allowing the public to “evaluate the wisdom and efficacy of the city council’s decision by comparing the accepted proposal to the ones the council rejected.”
Beall said state lawmakers have made it clear real estate proposals are public records with the exception of any documents that contain trade secrets or confidential financial information.
City Attorney Tony Lettunich told the council the proposals Steamboat Today seeks do not contain that type of information.
In an unusual move, city staff took the records request to the council to consider.
Lettunich suggested the city could use the “substantial harm to the public interest” exemption of the Colorado Open Records Act to withhold the documents.
Beall said the “catch-all” exemption the city is using to deny the release of the records is only available in circumstances state lawmakers could not have foreseen.
As an example, records related to the Columbine shooting fell under this exemption because lawmakers could not have foreseen the widespread grief caused by the tragedy.
“In this context, there can be no credible argument that the General Assembly was unaware of the potential for public records requests seeking access to the proposals of disappointed bidders for municipal real estate, as indeed the General Assembly has in fact addressed the commercial interests of such bidders through the provisions of CORA,” Beall wrote to the city.
Beall also noted because the council has already voted to approve the first reading of a sales contract, the negotiations between the city and Ski Town Commercial are complete.
Assistant City Attorney Dan Foote said the city plans to respond to Beall’s request Monday.
Council President Bart Kounovsky and councilman Walter Magill said Friday the sale proposals should remain private until the sale closes.
Magill said he believes Ski Town Commercial could decide not to honor the price in the sales contract if the buyers are able to see what the other bidders offered.
City staff has said Ski Town Commercial offered the most money for the hotel.
“We’re trying to secure the best price for the community,” Magill said.
Magill and Kounovsky had differing views when asked whether they had involved the public enough in their decision to sell the property.
Kounvosky said it had, and the public will have had a chance to weigh in on the sale at a first and second reading of the proposal.
Magill suggested the council could have done more.
“In hindsight, we could have asked the community what it thought the highest and best use was and perhaps held a forum,” he said.
Sonja Macys was the only council member to support releasing information about the other Iron Horse proposals the council considered.
Council President Pro-Tem Scott Myller has stepped down from the conversations about the Iron Horse because of a potential conflict of interest.
The council will consider a second and final reading of the sale of the Iron Horse on Oct. 27.
A public hearing will be held before the vote.
If the sale is approved, the contract cannot be signed by the city until 30 days after the vote to give the public an opportunity to mount a petition and force a public vote on the sale.
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