Steamboat Springs City Council releases transcript of closed-door session after transparency concerns raised
Steamboat Springs — A transcript of a closed-door meeting the Steamboat Springs City Council held last month gives the public insight into how the council privately authorized the city to file a lawsuit against a developer and landowner over the neglect of a historic barn.
The council voluntarily released the transcript Tuesday after Steamboat Today requested a recording of the meeting and alleged the council had violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by making a decision to file a lawsuit outside of a public session.
However, the city and the council denied they did anything illegal at the executive session.
According to the transcript, council members worried at the executive session that if they didn’t take a hard line against the parties who have been neglecting the Arnold Barn, it would set a bad precedent and potentially encourage more developers to take advantage of the city.
One council member also advocated for taking a “kitchen sink” approach in filing litigation.
“I think there is a bigger issue here too and that is every time a developer thinks there is like a little bit of an opportunity to avoid something…” City Attorney Dan Foote said at the Nov. 15 executive session.
“Right, we are setting precedent,” Councilwoman Heather Sloop added.
“We have been setting precedent for 20 years,” Councilwoman Robin Crossan said.
Councilwoman Kathi Meyer said the city shouldn’t reward bad behavior.
Council members also questioned why RCS-Wildhorse Land and RP Steamboat Springs, the parties the city believes are responsible for maintaining the barn, would choose to invest thousands of dollars fighting a lawsuit instead of spending that money on the barn.
“It’s going to be a $15,000 lawsuit,” Meyer said. “They can spend it, really, on stabilizing the barn.”
“And making good neighbors,” another person in the room added.
In the final minutes of the closed-door session, the council agreed that Foote should file a lawsuit in district court if the developer and property owner did not agree to pay $15,000 to stabilize the barn within 48 hours.
The lawsuit was filed days before Thanksgiving after the negotiations failed.
However, because the council came to that consensus behind closed doors, the public didn’t become privy to the city’s plan until two weeks after the lawsuit had already been filed.
Under the Colorado Open Meetings Law, elected officials are only allowed to take formal actions or adopt positions during open public sessions.
Steamboat Today sent the city an open records request last week that alleged the council had violated the Open Meetings Law. The newspaper also asked that the city release the relevant part of the recording of the executive session.
Asked by the newspaper if the council can make decisions such as filing a lawsuit behind closed doors, attorney Steve Zansberg, who leads the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s board of directors, said it cannot.
He noted a district court judge in 2011 found the city of Loveland should not have decided to file a lawsuit against its local newspaper over an open meetings dispute behind closed doors.
“Although discussion regarding (filing a lawsuit) with the City Attorney is unquestionably privileged as an attorney-client communication … the decision to authorize or direct the City Manager and/or City Attorney to file a lawsuit is at a minimum the adoption of a position, if not formal action, and thus must occur in open session,” the judge in that case wrote in the 2011 ruling.
Council members and Foote on Tuesday defended the executive session, saying they had only instructed their negotiators and didn’t discuss anything in executive session that isn’t allowed under the Open Meetings Law.
Still, the council voted, 6-0, to fulfill the records request to make public the discussion it had behind closed doors about filing the lawsuit.
Two small portions of the transcript were redacted.
Council President Walter Magill said he inadvertently forgot to record the beginning of the executive session, and the mistake influenced his decision to agree to release a transcript of the latter part of the meeting.
The discussion about the lawsuit occurred when the session was being recorded.
Councilman Tony Connell also defended the council’s use of executive sessions to discuss real estate deals.
“It’s not always in the public’s best interest” to have executive session discussions made public, Connell said.
He said the council’s decision to not reveal publicly the real estate purchase proposals for the Iron Horse Inn saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The current city council has met in more executive sessions this past year than previous councils. This council has held 14 executive sessions this year.
The city is hoping its lawsuit against RP Steamboat and RCS-Wildhorse Land will result in the stabilization of the 88-year-old Arnold Barn this winter.
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