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Steamboat Springs City Council doing more business behind closed doors

Scott Franz
The Steamboat Springs City Council meets in an executive session March 22 to select finalists for the city manager job.
Scott Franz

— The Steamboat Springs City Council, which campaigned heavily on increasing government transparency and public trust in the wake of a damaging police scandal, has met in more closed-door sessions this year than any other council in Steamboat’s recent history.

A Steamboat Today review of council executive session records going back to 2001 shows the current council is on track to hold the highest frequency of executive sessions since a council that was seated in 2005.

The current council has huddled behind closed doors 13 times since November 2015 to discuss such things as possibly changing a joint use agreement with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the fate of a historic barn and the repayment of a home loan the city gave to a former city manager.

“I’m surprised by the number, honestly,” City Council President Walter Magill said Monday.

Records show the council has held closed-door sessions at about 42 percent of its regular and special meetings. The frequency of the executive sessions drops down to 30 percent if the council’s information-only work session meetings are included in the analysis.

By comparison, the current Steamboat Springs School Board has met behind closed doors at about 21 percent of its meetings.

And Routt County commissioners, who meet weekly, are only meeting in secret at most once a quarter to get updates from their attorney, commissioner Cari Hermacinski said.

Just a little more than a year into its tenure, the current council already has had more closed-door meetings than the previous council seated in 2013 held over the course of a two-year period.

A council that was seated in 2007 greatly reduced the frequency of closed-door meetings, but recent councils have started to reduce that trend.

Magill said he thinks the significant increase in the number of executive sessions this year can be attributed to the new council having to hire a new attorney and city manager, getting brought up to speed on an internal police investigation and tackling heavier agendas.

But he acknowledged the numbers are likely to be eye opening for a council that promised more transparency. And he said he thinks the council has room to improve.

Magill said the council specifically needs to do a better job of describing what the council does at its executive sessions.

But the frequency of the executive sessions might not go down soon, he said.

“I don’t know if (the council) will really refrain (from using more of the executive sessions), because they were all necessary,” Magill said. “They are a necessary part of governments. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of discourse in executive session to keep things out of the public eye.”

On some occasions, however, some of the city’s elected officials have raised concerns about going behind closed doors.

Records reveal that about a quarter of the executive sessions the council has held since November 2015 were not supported by the full council.

Magill himself voted against convening two separate executive sessions that were held to discuss the repayment of a former city manager’s home loan and possibly revising a Howelsen Hill joint use agreement with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

Magill felt the conversations could have occurred in public.

He also said Monday a large part of a recent executive session that was held to discuss the fate of the historic Arnold Barn likely could have been held in open session without harming the public’s interest.

When Steamboat Today alleged this month that the executive session about the Arnold Barn was conducted illegally because the council arrived at a decision behind closed doors, the council defended the meeting and other executive sessions they’ve held.

Councilman Tony Connell said the previous council’s decision to discuss purchase proposals for the Iron Horse Inn in private saved city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Magill said the executive sessions are also beneficial to use for performance reviews of the council’s employees, the city manager and city attorney.

City Manger Gary Suiter has also repeatedly defended the council’s use of executive sessions, saying they’ve been conducted properly and council members have stayed on point while behind closed doors.

The council has made it a goal to improve community trust, and some council members who campaigned in 2015 said the frequency of executive sessions was a measure of transparency.

“Minimizing the time spent in executive session shows transparency,” councilwoman Robin Crossan wrote last year in response to a question about how she would work to improve the community’s confidence in the council.

When Suiter was briefing the council earlier this month on what the city has done recently to improve community trust, he listed such things as a Powerpoint presentation he gave on the topic, the addition of council work sessions and the hiring of a new public relations manager at City Hall.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10


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