Off to a shaky start 

Secret ballots, lack of postings mark new D-11 era

From Left to Right: Willie Breazell, Eric Christen, Craig Cox, Sandy Shakes
  • From Left to Right: Willie Breazell, Eric Christen, Craig Cox, Sandy Shakes

The new majority on Colorado Springs School District 11's board, elected earlier this month with help from Denver-based voucher supporters, has gotten off to a shaky start.

Within days of being sworn in last week, board members faced criticism for testing the limits of Colorado's open-meetings law in at least two instances.

And an attorney specializing in the open-meetings law says the school board may have violated the law outright by using a secret ballot to elect its new president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.

"That doesn't sound kosher to me," commented Steve Zansberg, a Denver lawyer who has represented several Colorado media outlets in open-meetings cases.

Majority rule

The new District 11 board met for the first time Nov. 19, two weeks after a slate of four pro-voucher candidates swept the elections, seizing control of the seven-member board. The four -- Sandy Shakes, Craig Cox, Eric Christen and Willie Breazell -- received substantial campaign contributions from Denver voucher proponents, as well as considerable assistance from local voucher advocate Steve Schuck.

At their first board meeting, the new majority wasted little time in showing who's in charge, by taking all four officer positions on the board. Shakes was elected president, Cox was elected vice president, Breazell became secretary and Christen took the office of treasurer. None of the four has previous experience on the board.

The board's other three members, Mary Wierman, Karen Teja and David Linebaugh, received no officer positions.

"I thought that they would give us a token office," Wierman said.

Shakes, however, said it was a matter of "majority rule." At the same time, she dismissed the notion that the four new members had agreed to elect each other, saying, "I cannot speak to how anyone other than myself voted. I just know the outcome."

Indeed, the fact that the election of officers took place by secret ballot means no one can determine who voted for whom.

But that in itself is a problem, according to Zansberg. When told about the vote, the attorney said he's not aware of any provision in the open-meetings law that allows secret ballots.

"All action, formal action such as that, should be conducted in an open meeting, and the public should be able to determine each member's vote," Zansberg said.

If secret ballots were allowed, "They could conduct an entire meeting that way," he observed. "Where does that end?"

School board members, meanwhile, said the board's president has always been elected by secret ballot. The other three officers have usually been voted on openly, they said.

Post-meeting celebrations

The secret ballot wasn't the only action drawing criticism. After adjourning its first meeting, the new board decided to celebrate at Old Chicago, a downtown restaurant.

Two board members, Wierman and Teja, didn't attend. Teja says she didn't find out about the gathering until later but wouldn't have attended anyway because she's concerned that such gatherings create a public perception that the board is meeting in secret.

Under the open-meetings law, whenever three or more members of a governing board meet to discuss business, the public must be notified in advance and allowed to attend.

Purely social gatherings, however, are exempt from the law, and members who attended the celebration say they didn't discuss any business.

"It was a social event, chitchat," Shakes said.

Christen derided other board members for even raising the issue, saying they were "wasting their time."

"Oh brother, spare me," Christen said. "You can go into any kind of celebratory situation that you wish, and it doesn't violate the [open-meetings law] at all. ... I guess we can expect this kind of nonsense."

He also pointed out that the previous board held its own social gathering on Nov. 2, to say farewell to two board members who were leaving office due to term limits.

That gathering, however, was publicly announced in advance.

Lax public


The new School Board also had trouble announcing its agenda for a board retreat held last Saturday morning to discuss priorities for the coming year.

Under the open-meetings law, specific agendas must be publicly posted 24 hours in advance of all public meetings, "where possible." The agenda for the retreat, however, wasn't announced until late Friday.

Ron Wynn, the district's chief of staff, said the agenda wasn't finalized until Shakes, Cox and two district administrators met Friday morning. Having been sworn into office just two days earlier, it was the first opportunity Shakes and Cox had to discuss the agenda, Wynn said.

"We couldn't put something [out] before they actually had things in place," Wynn said. "We normally have the information posted way in advance."

That's not a good excuse, said Pete Maysmith, director of Colorado Common Cause, an open-government watchdog group. At the very least, the district must have had a rough idea of what was going to be discussed and could have posted an outline of the agenda, he said.

"If they have a sense of what that agenda is going to look like, they need to tell the public," Maysmith said. "Period, end of discussion. For them not to do that is more than disrespectful; it sends a message that 'public participation isn't high on our list of concerns.' And that's wrong."

-- Terje Langeland


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