Lawmakers and open-government advocates are commending the Colorado Springs City Council for passing laws to bring high-dollar lawsuit settlements out of closed-door meetings and into the public spotlight.
The council unanimously approved three ordinances on the topic Tuesday, but city attorneys said they have been following the practices outlined in them since August.
The laws come after The Gazette reported that the council in closed-door meetings had paid about $5.4 million in lawsuit settlements — for cases including claims of racial and gender discrimination — since 2013.
State open meetings laws prohibit officials from voting or taking final actions in executive sessions
But First Amendment experts and legislators say informal decisions cannot be made in closed meetings under the state’s open meetings law, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“I’m just happy they’re going to follow the law moving forward,” said State Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.
Gardner was one of several legislators who sponsored a 2012 revision to the open meetings law, banning elected bodies of government from using secret ballots to make decisions.
Secret ballots obscure who voted and how. Gardner has said any vote to settle a lawsuit should be public, so residents can see how council members voted. He also called the council’s past settlement practices “baffling.”
“I applaud (the council’s) passage of ordinances to engage in a more transparent process for approval,” Gardner said. “It has been a puzzle to me why the council could not have been doing that all along.”
Roberts also called the new laws encouraging.
“It’s a big improvement over what was happening in the past,” Roberts said. “High dollar lawsuit settlements never came before the public and the public wouldn’t know about them unless someone dug into the (city’s) records.”
The first ordinance covers two scenarios: when the city’s attorneys seek permission to negotiate settlements of more than $100,000, and when they have reached a settlement for more than $100,000 and need permission to finalize it.
In both cases, city attorneys will still brief the council in an executive session. But after hearing the specifics in private, the council will reconvene in public before voting on settlements.
Specific dollar amounts, case numbers and details of the negotiations won’t be discussed in public unless a tentative agreement has been reached. This is meant to deny plaintiffs leverage over the city which might result in larger payouts, costing taxpayers more, city attorneys have said.
Even though specific dollar amounts or other details might be absent from public meetings, Roberts said the public will still have a better indication that the city is settling high-dollar cases and that more information might soon be available once the cases are finalized.
The second ordinance requires the city attorney to report to the council and the mayor within three days of reaching a settlement higher than $100,000. And the third ordinance consolidates the city’s code, making it clear that the city attorney can settle lawsuits or other matters up to $50,000.
Councilman Dave Geislinger, one of two on the council who worked with city attorneys to draft the ordinances, defended the past practices, but acknowledged they were somewhat “cumbersome.”
The new procedures streamline the settlement process by making information more immediately available, more clear and eliminates the appearance of any impropriety.
“Let’s be as open and above board and transparent as we can be,” Geislinger said in describing the goals behind the new ordinances.
The council’s practices in executive sessions have been a contentious issue within the group. Members have debated the topic publicly and even in additional closed sessions.
There is no consistent format among other Colorado cities. Councils in Denver, Boulder and Greeley, for example, vote publicly on settlements. Fort Collins, Pueblo and Salida align more with Colorado Springs’ past practices.
The Salida City Council has also been accused of violating the state’s open meetings law with its settlement practices.
As the Colorado Springs City Council considered changing its settlement practices, Councilman Don Knight pushed for the new protocol to be embedded in the city’s code rather than council rules. Changing the code makes the new protocol more permanent, Knight has said. The council could easily suspend one of its own rules with a majority vote.