Judge orders CSU to release recordings of chancellor search meeting

A Larimer County judge this afternoon ordered the Colorado State University Board of Governors to make public further recordings of a closed-door session during which it secretly interviewed candidates for the university’s new chancellorship and decided to select its own vice chairman, Joe Blake, as sole finalist for the position.

Judge Stephen Schapanski’s ruling comes in a case brought by The Colorado Independent, the Fort Collins’ Coloradoan and the Pueblo Chieftain, which argued the university violated state open-meetings laws in its search for a chancellor.

On request of the media organizations, Schapanski first considered whether there was sufficient reason for him to review the complete May 5 meeting recording to decide whether the board’s discussion should be entered as evidence in the case. CSU fought against the “in camera” review and lost.

Today’s order to release an additional 95 minutes of the board’s recorded discussion on Blake’s candidacy — in addition to the hour already made public — comes as a result of the “in camera” review. Schapanski methodically dismissed arguments made by the university attorneys — arguments the Colorado Independent characterized as “lawyerly” when they were filed.

The CSU attorneys claimed that the May 5 private executive session did not violate state open-meeting laws because the board was merely discussing legal matters and that Blake had recused himself a few days earlier from his position as vice chairman of the board.

“The Court finds that the Defendant Board did deliberate on the candidacy of Mr. Blake for the Chancellor’s position during the May 5, 2009 executive session. The Court further finds that such deliberation does not constitute the Defendant Board’s receiving legal advice from its attorney on a specific legal question… Since Mr Blake was a member of the Defedant Board at the time of the May 5, 2009 executive session, the Court finds that the Defendant Board’s deliberation of Mr. Blake’s candidacy could not properly be closed to the public, and that any such deliberation in executive session violated [the state’s open meeting laws].”

The judge described the board’s public meeting as merely perfunctory, saying it was a formality held to codify the Blake hiring, which had been decided upon in secret.

The [recording] makes it abundantly clear that the Defendant Board adopted the proposed position of selecting Mr. Blake as the sole finalist for the Chancellor’s position during the May 5, 2009 executive session. … The public vote, without any further discussion or deliberation, was nothing more than a “rubber stamp” of the decision already made in executive session.”

Michele McKinney, spokeswoman for the Board of Governors, said in a terse statement: “The Colorado State University System Board of Governors is reviewing the judge’s order and will be considering its options in the next few days.”

The Court will deliberate in coming weeks on the larger issue of whether the CSU Board of Governors violated state transparency laws.

If CSU loses the court battle, it will likely have to pay the media organizations’ attorneys fees at a time when the university is suffering major budget shortfalls and laying off staff and faculty across departments.

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