Attorney: City vote was illegal
The appointment of new Grand Junction City Council member Sam Susuras may have involved illegal voting methods, according to open meetings law and a prosecutor handling a lawsuit recently levied against the Fort Morgan City Council for similar conduct.
Grand Junction City Council members interviewed six candidates Thursday to replace Linda Romer Todd, who announced last month she was resigning from the council. All questions for the candidates were asked and answered in a public format, which is in accord with Colorado Open Meetings Law. Council members violated the law, however, when they opted to vote for their chosen candidate by paper ballot without announcing to the meeting audience whom each person voted for, said Denver attorney Steve Zansberg, who represents the Colorado Press Association.
“Unless there’s something in the city charter that talks about secret ballots, it violates open meetings law,” he said, adding any charter provision of that nature would still be in violation of the open meetings law.
There is no provision in the city of Grand Junction charter referring to secret ballots, but City Attorney John Shaver argued that’s why the City Council’s voting method was “above the board.” “We’re not automatically bound by statutory law. We’re relying on charter provisions,” Shaver said. “What actually is stated in there (the charter) is discretion.”
Zansberg responded in an e-mail to The Sentinel that “The lack of any Charter provision specifically authorizing such a voting procedure makes clear that, as in Fort Morgan, the secret voting was a violation of the (Colorado Open Meetings Law).”
Fort Morgan resident Ronald E. Henderson filed a lawsuit Feb. 21 against the City of Fort Morgan and the Fort Morgan City Council for appointing two council members and a municipal court judge via paper-ballot votes during what were otherwise public meetings. The lawsuit, which lists Zansberg as one of three prosecutors from the firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, seeks to prevent the Fort Morgan City Council from voting this way again, have the newest council appointment overturned, and have the council reconsider any decisions that were passed with the help of a vote from the newest council member.
According to the Colorado Open Meetings Law, any meeting involving a majority of the members of a local government body where public business is discussed or a formal action is taken must remain “open to the public at all times,” according to Colorado Open Meetings Law contained in state statutes. If any decision-making, including a vote, is made out of public view, “no resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance, or formal action” taken at the meeting “shall be valid.”
‘There were no objections’
While the Fort Morgan City Council did not keep a record of which council members voted for each candidate, the city of Grand Junction did. Shaver and City Manager Laurie Kadrich responded to a request Monday from the Sentinel for the voting results and said council members Teresa Coons, Tom Kenyon, Bruce Hill and Bonnie Beckstein voted for Susuras, while council members Bill Pitts and Gregg Palmer voted for candidate Brad Higginbotham.
Shaver said in an e-mail Tuesday that Pitts and Palmer confirmed their votes to him orally, and the minutes of the meeting will show which council members voted for each candidate. Council members did not sign their ballots.
Zansberg said the city’s revelation of the candidates’ votes helps “cure” the open meetings law “violation.”
“The public now gets to see what should have been done out in the open at the time of the vote,” he said.
Three votes occurred during the meeting in which council members voted to appoint Susuras. Each vote involved paper ballots. First, council members narrowed the candidate field from six to two. The first vote between the two men, also done by paper ballot, resulted in a tie.
Mayor Bruce Hill, who suggested the voting method, announced who won a majority after each vote, but never told the audience how many votes each candidate received or who voted which way. The Fort Morgan City Council announced immediately after the vote counts how many votes each candidate received, but it kept private the way each council member voted.
When reached Monday afternoon before the results of the final vote were released by the city, Hill declined to say whom he voted for.
“You’re coming at me from a legal angle,” he said after being told by a Sentinel reporter the results could legally be revealed under open meetings law.
Hill said he suggested the paper voting method at the time of, and not before, the special meeting.
“There were no objections, so we moved forward,” he said.
Council member Bonnie Beckstein also was contacted by the Sentinel before the city released the results.
“That was a private vote, and I’d like to keep it private,” she responded.
Council member Tom Kenyon told the Sentinel on Monday afternoon he would check with City Clerk Stephanie Tuin to see if he could reveal whom he voted for. In a return call, he said Kadrich had recorded the voting results and could release them to the media.
Coons, Palmer and Pitts could not be reached for comment.