COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (The Gazette/Conrad Swanson) In closed executive sessions that some legal experts say violate Colorado’s open meetings law, the Colorado Springs City Council has doled out about $5.4 million to settle a string of cases, including racial and gender discrimination.
The council’s closed-door process is so secretive that it remains unclear how long it’s been going on, where much of the money comes from and how much has been spent.
The city’s attorneys settled at least seven such cases since 2013, and neither public votes nor official council records approving the payments could be found by The Gazette.
The newspaper’s review included a search of legal filings obtained from the city through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
The city declined to respond to questions about public votes, discussions and the history of the council’s practices.
City spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said that would be an inappropriate use of time for the city’s attorneys.
Experts decry the actions – which date back years, if not decades – as a flagrant breach of the state’s open meeting laws. Governmental entities and other public bodies are prohibited from making decisions in closed sessions under the state’s open meeting law. The Gazette recently reported two instances in which the council appeared to break that law.
Even informal council actions, such as giving direction to City Attorney Wynetta Massey through head nods, constitute a decision, says Denver First Amendment attorney Steven D. Zansberg, who has represented The Gazette.
Many council members have expressed unease with the protocol, and Councilman Don Knight is pushing to change the city’s code and end the secret settlements.
Knight said Massey assured him the practice of approving such settlements in confidential executive sessions is legal. Massey said that approval for settlements can come behind closed doors because the council isn’t taking legislative action. She said talks about such settlements are protected by attorney-client privilege.
“We can continue with our practice because there’s never been a Colorado law (on this), and our attorney thinks we’re doing OK,” Knight said. “I never agreed with that. What are we protecting?”
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