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Sentinel Colorado wins access to records, shines light on unlawful secret meeting

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Sentinel’s reporting was made possible by a successful lawsuit litigated by RCFP attorneys and attorney Steve Zansberg.
Screenshot of virtual meeting of the Aurora City Council Appointee Evaluation and Compensation Committee
A screen capture taken from the recording of an unlawful virtual meeting of the Aurora City Council Appointee Evaluation and Compensation Committee.

The Sentinel Colorado recently revealed what an Aurora City Council committee discussed during an unlawful closed-door meeting last year concerning the pay and performance of the city’s most senior government employees.

According to The Sentinel, members of the Aurora City Council Appointee Evaluation and Compensation Committee met in secret on Oct. 13, 2023, to discuss the city council’s assessments of its four direct appointees, “including candid doubts about the court administrator and city attorney, whom they nonetheless recommended for raises.”

The Sentinel’s reporting was made possible by a successful public records lawsuit the newspaper and local government reporter Max Levy litigated with free legal support from attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and attorney Steve Zansberg. 

The lawsuit resulted in a favorable ruling by the Arapahoe County District Court last month that forced the city to disclose a recording of the closed-door meeting. It’s the second time since 2022 that the district court has concluded that the city of Aurora has violated Colorado’s Open Meetings Law in response to a lawsuit Reporters Committee attorneys helped litigate on the newspaper’s behalf. 

“I’m just really grateful for the help of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Steve,” Levy said. “It’s made a huge difference not just for our newspaper but for our readers here in Aurora. It really matters.”

Public records request leads to litigation

Levy first learned of the Oct. 13 committee meeting after receiving a tip from a source that its members had held several executive sessions without first notifying the public of their intention to meet in private, as is required under the Open Meetings Law. In a public records request, Levy asked the city for the recordings of four of the committee’s executive sessions, including the virtual meeting on Oct. 13. 

In response, the city claimed that it had inadvertently failed to record three of the committee’s meetings. The city had recorded the Oct. 13 executive session, but it declined to release it to The Sentinel. 

In an unusual step, the city went even further and filed an application in Arapahoe County District Court asking a judge to issue an order allowing the city to withhold the recording because disclosure would cause “substantial injury to the public.” The city argued, among other things, that the recording was protected from disclosure under a section of the Colorado Open Records Act that shields records that, if publicly released, could stifle open and honest discussions within the government.

The Sentinel, represented by Zansberg and Reporters Committee attorneys, responded with a counter-lawsuit in April. In the lawsuit, The Sentinel argued that the city council committee violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law when it met behind closed doors without first providing public notice about the executive session. The news outlet also argued that the city violated the state’s public records law by failing to turn over the recording of the unlawfully closed meeting.

The district court agreed with The Sentinel. 

In a six-page decision issued on May 15, District Court Judge Elizabeth Beebe Volz ordered the city of Aurora to turn over the recording of the executive session to the newspaper. Because the city failed to provide proper public notice of the executive session, the judge concluded that the recording of the meeting is a public record that is subject to release under the public records law.

“It is undisputed that the City failed to give notice of an executive session meeting and the public was not admitted to the meeting,” Judge Volz wrote. “The Court therefore concludes that the recording of the October 13, 2023 meeting is public and should be provided to The Sentinel as requested.”

Shortly after the court’s ruling, the city of Aurora turned over the recording. As Levy reported on May 28, the recording provided the public with a glimpse inside the committee’s frank discussions about the Aurora City Council’s evaluations of the performance of four high-ranking government employees — the court administrator, city attorney, city manager, and municipal judge — as well as how much they should be paid.

Levy told the Reporters Committee that the committee’s conversations were newsworthy, especially since members recommended pay raises for two of the employees despite concerns from council members about their performance. 

“These are the four most senior appointed officials in the city,” Levy said. “The public deserves to know why the council is making some of these decisions having to do with pay and compensation. And at the end of the day, this was a record that should have never been kept from the public.”

Setting an important precedent

With free legal support from Reporters Committee attorneys, Levy and The Sentinel have now twice challenged the city of Aurora in court over violations of the Open Meetings Law. In both cases, the newspaper has received favorable rulings. 

Last month’s ruling by Judge Volz cited an earlier case in which The Sentinel, represented by Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Rachael Johnson, argued that the Aurora City Council had violated the Open Meetings Law by holding a secret vote in March 2022 related to the censure of a city councilwoman. A three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals held last year that the council’s executive session did indeed violate the law and ordered the city to disclose a recording of the meeting. The city has since asked the Colorado Supreme Court to hear the case.

As Levy pointed out, it wasn’t the first time the appellate court’s ruling in the newspaper’s favor has been cited in a court opinion about alleged violations of the Open Meetings Law in Colorado. Shortly after the appeals court’s December decision, a district court in Garfield County relied on it to conclude that the city of Glenwood Springs had violated the Open Meetings Law by deciding to terminate a former city manager during a closed-door meeting. And earlier this year, the Colorado Court of Appeals referenced its decision in the Sentinel case when it found that the board of trustees for the town of Del Norte violated the Open Meetings Law by censuring a trustee behind closed doors.

“The Sentinel has two reporters on staff, and we’re standing up to the administration of one of the largest cities in Colorado. I think it’s telling that, with the support of a handful of attorneys who understand the importance of what we do, we’ve been able to shed light on local government decision-making not just in Aurora but across the state,” Levy said. “It shows how even a small investment in local news goes a long way toward holding powerful people and institutions accountable.”

Read The Sentinel’s full reporting.

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