SHERIDAN — Judge William Edelman of 4th Judicial District Court heard oral arguments in The Sheridan Press’ lawsuit against Sheridan County School District 2 on Wednesday. He did not issue a decision in the matter, but said he would do so soon.
The Press filed the lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that the school board held illegal executive, or closed, sessions to discuss a proposed multipurpose recreational facility that could cost up to $45 million and, according to a market analysis the board had done, operate at a $700,000 to $1.7 million annual deficit.
During the hearing, SCSD2 attorney Kendal Hoopes argued that discussions the school board had in regard to the facility in closed session were allowed under Wyoming state statute exemptions to open meetings law regarding real estate and attorney-client privilege.
He said that if the board was discussing a proposed location for the facility, it could lead to an increase in the price.
But, he also argued that there really was no project yet, because no board action had been taken. Yet, as previously reported by The Press, there were several cost estimates compiled by local engineering firms, a market analysis conducted by a consultant and several reports exploring the possibility of a bond issue — all of which cost the district more than $17,000. SCSD2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty also said in an email that the district was considering a bond election as early as the spring of this year to help fund the project.
Press attorney Bruce Moats countered by saying the real estate exemption is only to be used when a governing body is considering the selection of a site or the purchase of real estate. If there was no project, as Hoopes contended, Moats asked why would the board would be selecting real estate. In addition, even if the exemption did apply, it would only be allowed in the context of the real estate discussions. The Press has argued that you cannot discuss the potential purchase of real estate without first discussing the project for which it would be used.
In interviews with district administration officials and the school board president held in February, Board Chairman Richard Bridger acknowledged that the board was aware of the project. Dougherty also asserted his belief that the project simply wasn’t ready for public review yet.
In terms of the attorney client privilege exemption, Moats said that exemption only applies when the attorney is discussing proposed or existing litigation to which the governing body is a part. It does not, he contended, include every discussion the board has with its attorney.
Hoopes also said the multipurpose facility was, in fact, discussed extensively in open school board meetings and a public hearing was held to consider it. He was referring to the school district’s five-year facilities plan, which discusses in broad strokes the need for things like expanded locker room space, renovations to the high school’s auditorium and other district needs. It does not, however, include specifics on the multipurpose facility. Also, if the facility was indeed discussed extensively in open meetings, that discussion is not reflected in board meeting minutes from 2012 or 2013.
In addition to the case currently in process in 4th Judicial District Court, the Sheridan County Attorney’s Office continues to review documents related to whether the school district violated the state’s public records act by witholding documents after a request for documents was submitted by The Press in February.