DENVER – A Douglas County District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against the four majority board members of the Douglas County school board that requires them to follow the Colorado Open Meetings Law.
Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes granted the preliminary injunction against Board of Education President Mike Peterson, Vice President Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar – the “Kids First” board majority – which orders them not to talk about public business or take any formal actions by three or more board members either as a group or through a series of meetings – except in public meetings that are open to the public.
The lawsuit against the board members was filed by Robert Marshall, a Douglas County resident, after the board majority discussed firing then-Superintendent Corey Wise several days before they formally fired him in a 4-3 vote at a meeting on Feb. 4 and without hearing public comment.
“The evidence indicates that four members of the board collectively committed, outside of public meetings, to the termination of Wise’s employment,” Judge Holmes wrote in the order. “That decision was then formalized at an official meeting on February 4th. The fact that no public comment was permitted at the February 4th meeting is additional evidence of the Individual Defendants’ commitment to their course of action.”
Attorneys for the board majority had argued that since no more than two board members met at a time and talked about firing Wise, they were in compliance with Colorado’s open meetings law.
In considering whether to grant the injunction, Holmes looked at Hawaii open meetings law, which he said was similar to Colorado’s, and open meetings law from other states, as Colorado courts have not specifically ruled on so-called “walking quorums.”
But in considering interpretation of Colorado’s statute and those of other state’s Holmes wrote that such laws “are to be interpreted most favorably to protect the ultimate beneficiary, the public.”
“Circumventing the statute by a series of private one-on-one meetings at which public business is discussed and/or decisions reached is a violation of the purpose of the statute, not just its spirit,” Holmes added.
He said that while the board members have argued that a preliminary injunction “would hamper their ability to react quickly to changed circumstances,” the court indeed has “no interest in engaging in ongoing supervision of the BOE.”
“The requested relief is that the board do what the statute requires. To the extent that statutory compliance results in an inability to react quickly to change circumstances, that is not the fault of the injunction,” Holmes wrote, adding that the board ‘s responsibility is to work together “in the business of providing educational services in Douglas County and to do so in a way that enables the public to view the process.”
Paula Hans, a spokesperson for the Douglas County School District, said the district "has nothing to provide at this time."
Holmes’ order says a preliminary injunction “would preserve the status quo pending a trial on the merits.”
Marshall, in an email, called the judge’s decision “huge” first step in the lawsuit process and said it put him in a strong position moving forward.
“Judge Holmes’ well-reasoned ruling recognizes that local public bodies cannot circumvent our state’s Open Meetings Law by discussing public business – and making important policy decision – through a series of meetings by two members at a time,” Marshall said. “…[T]he judge’s view that [the board majority] had already come to that decision (to fire Wise) before the February 4th meeting strongly suggests that the Court would find it difficult to believe that Fe. 4 meeting ‘cured’ the firing of Mr. Wise.”