School district violated open meetings rules, let down community
Date posted: February 14, 2014
Over the last two years, Sheridan County School District 2 has been meeting with local interest groups about the potential for a large, multipurpose recreation facility in the city.
Despite comments saying the project was never meant to be “hush, hush,” the broader public was never made aware of this project. The project, according to a consultant’s report obtained by The Sheridan Press, would cost $48 million and could operate at an annual deficit of $700,000 to $1.7 million. The story was first published in the Feb. 6 editions of The Sheridan Press.
Discussions of the project were held with nonprofit boards and user groups, but never in a public school board meeting. Instead, the school district spoke about the project in closed sessions. This is in violation of Wyoming’s open meetings laws.
The law is very specific about what can be discussed behind closed doors. The exemptions include talks about ongoing litigation, personnel and real estate matters.
SCSD2 Board Superintendent Craig Dougherty said the discussion of the project fell under the real estate exemption. He said the school board only discussed the project in regards to the footprint that would be required to make it happen.
This is not a real estate exemption. The real estate exemption states that meetings can be closed, “to consider the selection of a site or the purchase of real estate when the publicity regarding the consideration would cause a likelihood of an increase in price.” SCSD2 representatives have said the project is 10 or 20 years out and that they are only in the very early stages of discussions. If a project is 10-20 years out, claiming that current discussions would impact the sale price of real estate that may be needed is far-fetched.
In addition, in order to even get to the point of talking about a building footprint – particularly one of this significance, some 150,000 square feet — you would need to talk about the building itself. What is it? What will it include? How much property is needed to make it a reality? These are all questions that would have needed to be introduced in order to talk about a footprint. None of these topics were ever discussed in public meetings, though they should have been.
The SCSD2 staff and board members that allowed the project to be discussed in private or who participated in those discussions let this community down. Governing should not be done in secret and projects of this size deserve a full vetting from the community that would participate in making it happen.
Officials said the project simply wasn’t ready for public consumption. We cannot imagine any project to come before the school board that wouldn’t benefit from community participation from step one.
The Sheridan Press Monday filed a petition in 4th Judicial District Court asking the judge to rule that the district violated open meetings laws.
We’ve also asked that the meeting minutes from those closed sessions be released to the press. A week earlier, the Press sent SCSD2 a public records request asking for documents regarding the project.
The school district has provided those documents with one notable exception: a second consultant’s report from Hilltop Public Solutions of Billings.
It’s from Jan. 29, 2013, and provides a broad, strategic overview of a bond referendum campaign that would ultimately put the project before voters. (See related story today.)
This document also contradicts school district leadership’s mantra of a $48 million rec center being 10 to 20 years in the future.
The shelf life of such research is typically short term and usually reflects some varying degree of imminence.
Conversations regarding this project should have been public from the start. We want to make them public now.
What good is a community-wide, possibly community-financed multipurpose facility that nobody knows anything about?