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Colorado Springs councilman walks out of executive session, cites systemic lack of transparency

February 21, 2018 Updated: February 22, 2018 at 6:25 am
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Accusing Colorado Springs leaders of violating the state Sunshine Law on open meetings, City Councilman Bill Murray walked out of an executive session Wednesday morning in protest.

According to the council agenda, the closed meeting involved "legal advice and negotiation consultation with the city attorney regarding an annexation matter."

Murray said it was about proposed changes to the 30-year-old annexation agreement for Banning Lewis Ranch, long blamed for stagnation on the 24,000-acre parcel.

A federal judge upheld the agreement in August 2015, but city leaders later began negotiating with about 40 property owners at the ranch to tweak the document and stimulate growth in the area.

Murray said those negotiations are hidden from the public because city representatives, chiefly City Attorney Wynetta Massey, have improperly labeled them settlement negotiations, which allows them to be discussed in executive sessions.

Murray said he will boycott any executive sessions on the ranch and is calling for the rest of the council to make the closed negotiations public.

Before he walked out, Murray said, he asked Massey several questions, including when the last settlement discussion was held. He said she told him that was in a Feb. 5 executive session during a regular council meeting. Murray was out of state.

Murray said he also asked when the settlement discussions began, but Massey said she didn't remember.

Then, Murray said, he left.

Massey disputed Murray's claims, saying through a city spokeswoman that Wednesday's meeting was properly called.

Councilman Andy Pico called the walk-out "out of line."

But Council President Richard Skorman partially sided with Murray and questioned the need for the closed meeting.

"A lot of it didn't need to be discussed in executive session," Skorman said. "A lot of it was just answering questions on part of the annexation agreement that's already public."

By law, no decisions are to be made in closed sessions.

But Murray accused the council last month of directing Massey in a March 2017 executive session to pursue sanctions against Monument clean-air advocate and attorney Leslie Weise.

He said the sanctions were recommended by Massey and Mayor John Suthers, both of whom declined to comment.

Council members Tom Strand and Jill Gaebler, as well as former Councilman Keith King, said that direction was done not by vote, but rather by head nods indicating council consent.

But Denver First Amendment attorney Steven D. Zansberg said: "Instructing an attorney to do something specific like this, to start filing a lawsuit or seeking sanctions against someone, is a decision that has to be made in a public meeting."

Even informal decisions made "by consensus instead of formal voting" in executive sessions violate the state's open meeting law, said Zansberg, who represents The Gazette in such matters.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, concurred.

"Government's not supposed to be conducted in secret," Roberts said. "That's the point of (Colorado's Sunshine Law, passed in 1972), so there aren't these sort of back-room types of decisions that are made."

Massey would not comment on whether there is a distinction between giving direction and voting.

Councilman Don Knight said the council could examine closed session topics more closely, case by case.

"I've had some concerns in the past that maybe we should have come out of executive sessions and answered the question in an open vote," Knight said. "The bottom line is, we could be a little more transparent coming out of executive session."

But some closed sessions are needed, he said, including for negotiations on Banning Lewis Ranch. If some of those details became public, they could diminish the city's leverage, Knight said.

Other council members, Pico, David Geislinger and Yolanda Avila, said they're comfortable with current practices.

Skorman said there's never been a formal vote in executive session, but the council has directed the staff "for more research or to move forward with a legal defense."

But Murray asked: "How many times in the years that we've had executive sessions are you aware of this City Council coming out of an executive session and voting on an item? There's a reason we don't do it, and that's because the council doesn't want to be on record of telling the people what we just agreed to."

He said he'll formally request a vote during the council meeting Tuesday on whether to end closed settlement negotiations on the ranch's annexation agreement.

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