Recordings of a May 5 closed-door meeting released Wednesday by the Colorado State University governing board all but confirm that board members violated state open-meetings laws, first in discussing the candidacy of Joe Blake, a member of the board, and then again in making the decision that he would be their choice as sole finalist for the university’s new standalone chancellor position.
CSU decided to release the recordings in response to pressure placed on the board by attorneys for The Colorado Independent and The Coloradoan and the Pueblo Chieftain newspapers. The media outlets have filed a joint suit against the CSU board alleging that it violated state transparency laws when its members held discussions and made decisions about hiring Blake behind closed doors.
Near the end of the newly released recordings, board Chairman Doug Jones said:
Does anybody object to putting Joe Blake’s name as the sole and single candidate for chancellor of Colorado State University System. Any objection? One. OK.
We will then adjourn and go into open session and vote…[section redacted] for votes on two votes. Vote on the acceptance of the committee report and the motion on the candidate.
Blake was chosen after the board interviewed one other candidate, Dennis Brimhall, former CEO of the University of Colorado hospital in Aurora.
Releasing the tape
The board agreed to release a recording of the May 5 meeting on Wednesday morning. The university posted the recording to the CSU website.
Speaking on the decision to release the tapes, the board’s general counsel offered the following explanation, one that raises more questions than it answers:
We believe it is in the public’s interest to disclose that portion of the executive-session tape recording of May 5, 2009, relating to Mr. Blake’s presentation, the board’s interview of Mr. Blake, and the board’s discussion concerning his application so that the public can hear the basis for the decision to select Mr. Blake.
Colorado law states that the public has a legal right to consider the reasoning behind major hires at public institutions as those decisions are being made, especially for positions such as university chancellors, who receive generous compensation and can wield enormous power in shaping the institutions and in managing enormous sums of taxpayer funding.
In fact, the May 5 recording reveals in part that concerns regarding Blake’s candidacy among members of the board and among observers of the search could have been eased if the meetings were held publicly. Board members expressed reservations in hiring Blake because of the perception among the public that the decision had been made early in the process and was the product of an “old boy” network working to install one of its own as chancellor, in this case Board Vice Chairman Blake. Such a perception, they acknowledged, had riled the very lawmakers the new chancellor would have to work with, in effect, setting up opposition to Blake before he might ever accept the appointment.
State laws promoting transparency are intended to guard against insider decision-making, politicking and corruption of all sorts. Public access to decisions throughout the process welcomes outsider scrutiny and theoretically bolsters the resolve of those involved in the decision-making process to act in the best interest of the university and community.
Under threat of a lawsuit, the board seemed reconciled to those guidelines on Wednesday, two weeks after it finalized the decision to hire Blake and after months of complaints about the secretive nature of the chancellor search — complaints that in the end moved state majority leaders Paul Weissmann and Brandon Shaffer to introduce legislation to force CSU to open up the search process. Although the bill was killed by Shaffer after the board announced Blake as the sole finalist for the position, the bill and the concerns that generated it were in the mind of the board members and they discussed it during the closed-door session held May 5 as the bill was making its way through the legislature.
Still, the members met in private, and in that private session, one member — arguing in favor of extended, hour-long interviews with each candidate — exclaimed:
“This perception issue could table this thing if we don’t do it the right way.”
The tape reveals other concerns that Blake’s candidacy raised among the board and in the press, that Blake’s leadership of the conservative pro-business and politicized Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce would set him against the Democratic-controlled legislature and that he lacked an academic credentials and experience running an institution of higher learning.
Board members were impressed mostly by his passion, commitment to the future of CSU and his familiarity with “movers and shakers” in Denver.
In his interview, Blake stressed his devotion beyond CSU to higher education generally in the state.
I don’t think there could be a better time than right now to step in…. as an advocate for higher education. I think if you’re going to get CSU system and the whole area moving along the way you want it to move, we’re going to have to find and do the best thinking we can to find opportunities for a dedicated sources of funding for higher education … I’ve had conversations about this in the past with Bruce Benson and others to see if that can happen.
I would conclude … that I think the experience I had as co-chair on the Referendum C and D campaign now five years ago really provided the base upon which to do something positive for higher education.
In addressing concerns about political partisanship, he mentioned his work with the Democrats on this year’s FASTER transportation legislation. He also mentioned his regular contact and personal relationship with Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
No one, however, asked him about his trip this month to Washington, D.C., to lobby Colorado’s lawmakers to vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, a deeply partisan issue.
Elaborating on the partisan battle over transportation funding, he said:
The Republicans early in the session took a position that said: “We are not going to pass anything that would obtain credit for this governor, or for anybody.” And we knew that was coming. We had worked for all of November and December to try to find a way to craft a bill that would be acceptable to Republicans.
It would not be acceptable, including tolling, including all these other things that the Republicans would not accept. We had meetings. I had meetings at my house … to try to gain support … At the end of it all, [Colorado Senate Minority Leader] Josh Penry said: “No we’re not going to help…” Not one Republican voted for that. You know you take some lumps on that. There are times that I think the Republican Party down there wonders where my colors are…