The Douglas County School Board has parted ways with its original legal defense firm in a lawsuit alleging some directors broke open meetings laws, also as the board weighs an appeal of a judge’s order that determined some directors broke both the spirit and reason for the law.
The board’s motion to dismiss the case, filed by its former law firm, has also been denied, and the case will move forward.
Douglas County resident Robert Marshall filed suit against the board Feb. 4 alleging the four majority directors Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar broke Colorado’s Sunshine Laws by holding a chain of private, one-on-one meetings to plan the removal of former Superintendent Corey Wise.
Peterson and Williams eventually met with Wise in a private meeting at a Parker coffee shop to ask that he step down. If he did not, a board majority was prepared to terminate him, they told Wise during the Jan. 28 meeting.
Minority directors David Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson held a special public meeting Jan. 31 and alleged the ultimatum made to Wise broke Sunshine Laws because they saw it as formal action taken outside a public meeting. The three did not know about the meeting between Peterson, Williams and Wise until after it took place.
The board initially retained the Denver-based firm Hall and Evans LLC to defend it against Marshall’s lawsuit. The board brought on a second firm, Greenwood Village-based Gessler Blue LLC, in March after the judge granted Marshall’s request for a preliminary injunction barring any further serial meetings.
On April 26, the board was scheduled to consider a resolution that would appoint one of the two firms as lead counsel but concerns about high legal costs led them to select a single firm moving forward.
“To even avoid coordination charges where we have to have attorneys confer with each other,” Peterson said.
The board voted to retain Gessler Blue as its sole representation, with attorney Geoffrey Blue as the board’s primary point of contact at the firm. A spokeswoman said there are no fees associated with the board ending its retention of Hall and Evans, which was effective immediately.
During board discussion, Hanson said she worried working with two firms would become costly to the district.
Hanson has been open about her frustrations with the board’s first firm, which she said did not communicate well with her or the board as a whole. But the firm had boosted its communication with her in the past month, she said, leaving her conflicted about cutting them loose.
After the board held an executive session regarding the lawsuit, Hanson said she was grateful attorney Geoff Blue of Gessler Blue LLC attended the meeting and met with directors personally.
“I found Mr. Blue to be very rational, very practical, very up to speed on the issues, and I feel very comfortable with this being in his hands,” she said.
The lawsuit has posed conundrums for a board with starkly different views on the issue. Minority directors made the first public allegations that the majority violated open meetings law, prompting Marshall’s lawsuit.
His suit named the four majority directors individually, but also the board as an entity, comprising all seven directors.
The minority have remained critics of using daisy-chain or serial meetings and urged against appealing the judge’s preliminary injunction. Minority directors have said the order merely instructs the board to follow open meetings law and does not affect any governing bodies aside from DCSD’s school board.
Majority directors have maintained they did nothing wrong and followed Colorado law to the letter. Although the judge’s order cites precedent in other states prohibiting daisy chain and serial meetings, there does not appear to be case law in Colorado on the issue.
Peterson has said at previous meetings he believes the preliminary injunction needs to be clarified or rescinded, and he worries the case could be precedent setting.
Blue filed a motion April 25 asking the judge to either clarify his preliminary injunction or withdraw it entirely.
Blue’s motion contends the judge misapplied the law by issuing a preliminary injunction but also that his order was overly broad and too vague for directors to reasonably follow. Blue argued the order prohibits any one-on-one meetings about district business among board directors.
He asked for more clarity about when a meeting crosses the threshold into a serial meeting that the judge would consider a violation of Colorado open meetings law.
An alternative order proposed by Blue would state the board is prohibited “from conducting a series of one-on-one meetings in which they reach and communicate an agreement about an issue on which the board of education will vote and take formal action at a properly noticed public meeting.”
Part of the board’s April 26 discussion centered around the motion filed by Blue and that some directors did not know about it until after it was filed.
Peterson clarified that the motion was approved by a resolution the board passed at a previous meeting. He spoke to Blue about making sure the motion was filed by a court deadline but did not receive word when it was filed.
Williams said she also did not know the motion was filed until April 26 and said she agreed with minority directors that she would like more communication between attorneys and the full board.
In an order issued April 29, District Judge Jeffrey Holmes denied a motion filed early in the case to dismiss Marshall’s lawsuit. Holmes wrote that the board’s reasons for seeking dismissal were unclear and the court had jurisdiction to decide the lawsuit.