Student editor sues board over closed meetings
Lawsuit alleges trustees discussed presidential search in private, a violation of open-meetings law
COLORADO — The editor of a student newspaper at Mesa State College sued the college’s Board of Trustees in March, claiming the board failed to hold open meetings — as required by state law — during its controversial search for a new college president.
Megan Fromm, a sophomore at the Grand Junction college and editor of the Criterion, decided to file a lawsuit in state district court after the board denied an open-records request the Criterion filed with Lena Elliot, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees.
Fromm requested audio tapes from an executive session the board held Nov. 18 and 19 of last year. Fromm suspects that the board illegally entered into executive session to discuss the board’s search for a new college president.
The presidential search has sparked controversy at the school. The board picked only one finalist from 90 applicants, angering faculty and students who believed they were left out of the selection process. The finalist, Tim Foster, has since been hired as Mesa State’s president.
According to Fromm’s lawsuit, filed March 2, the board illegally entered into executive session to discuss matters not exempt under the state open-records law.
Under the Colorado Open Meetings Law, public bodies must make an affirmative vote before entering into executive session, and that vote must be recorded in the minutes of the meeting
Trustee Carol Nesland, the custodian of executive session records, denied Fromm’s request in a Feb. 19 letter, maintaining that the board did not violate state open-meetings law.
In the letter, Nesland also said that the “open session announcement of executive session and voting were inadvertently omitted from the minutes because the person assigned to record and transcribe minutes was not present during these portions of the open meetings.”
Fromm, expressing disbelief at what she sees as negligence, said she believes that excuse is unacceptable, given the board’s vital role in making important decisions for the college.
The lawsuit asks the court to review recordings of the meetings in question and seeks to compel board members to explain why the tapes are exempt from disclosure under Colorado law. Fromm is also asking for attorney’s fees.
National open-government experts, such as Charles Davis, associate professor and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said nongovernmental employees, such as college trustees, often do not understand the necessity of transparency in public agencies.
“[Trustees] … are typically people who have a great deal of secrecy in their own lives because they come from the private sector where that’s fine. The problem is they try to install private-sector models of governance into quasi-public bodies, and therein lies the difficulty,” Davis said.
So far, the lawsuit has had a positive effect on the Criterion. Fromm is pleased that the Mesa State community has taken the student newspaper more seriously because of the lawsuit.
“I hope … state boards and the representatives of state boards adhere to the law and really serve as public figures and representatives of the community and of the students and faculty that they serve,” Fromm said. “I hope that [the incident] illuminates the importance of that role and how important it is to do things well.”
A court date has not been set. n
Colorado, Criterion, Mesa State College, open-meetings, reports, Spring 2004