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SHERIDAN — Sheridan Newspapers Inc. has filed a petition requesting the 4th Judicial District Court examine executive session minutes of Sheridan County School District 2 for a possible violation of Wyoming’s Open Meetings Act.
The petition alleges that the SCSD 2 Board of Trustees has violated the act by conducting executive, or closed, sessions to discuss a possible multipurpose facility to be operated by the district.
According to the Open Meetings Act, all meetings of government bodies are considered public meetings, except for executive sessions that can be held and closed to the public in a limited set of circumstances that are defined in the statutes.
SCSD 2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty said he believes discussion of the facility in executive session falls within the provision that allows governing bodies, “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”
“It’s only been in executive session regarding real estate,” Dougherty said in an interview with The Press last week. “…We have our attorney that comes to every one of our board meetings, so we are really strict in relation to what we cover in our executive session.
“So if we were to go beyond the listening and the start, OK, these are some things we’re going to start doing, those things would be added on to our capital construction memo (provided at each monthly board meeting),” Dougherty continued.
“But right now because it’s in the listening phase still of taking ideas and feedback from our community, it hasn’t risen to the level of this is what we’re going to take action on,” Dougherty added.
At the Whitney Benefits Education Summit held Jan. 27 at Sheridan College, SCSD 2 Board Chair Richard Bridger noted in his speech to the assembled group of more than 100 people that the district was looking in the future to construct a multiuse recreational facility. However, in a following speech that same night, Mayor Dave Kinskey mentioned several specific figures related to the building, which suggested the building was not a futuristic endeavor, but had already been investigated and discussed by the district. As a result, The Sheridan Press examined public meeting minutes of the district back to January 2012, but found no mention of the facility.
On Jan. 31, 2013, The Sheridan Press sent a letter to Dougherty requesting all documents related to the project under the Wyoming Sunshine Law. Some documents were provided shortly a few days later, but no SCSD 2 regular meeting minutes were included in the district’s response, indicating it was never discussed publicly. One item not included in the original documents provided by the district, but received from a different source, is a proposal from Hilltop Public Solutions of Billings, which provided a marketing strategy for a bond initiative campaign to fund the multiuse facility the district was investigating.
While the Hilltop proposal was not provided, Dougherty did acknowledge its existence in an interview with The Press last week. When asked what that proposal cost, Dougherty said it was done pro bono by Hilltop and characterized it as “information gathering.”
Hilltop is a national political and public relations firm that pitched a campaign strategy to the school district to garner support for the multiuse facility through a bond election. The strategy included canvassing, digital campaigns through social media and advertising. Hilltop noted in their proposal that they typically charge between $5,000-10,000 a month for their work.
“However, given the importance of this project to the city of Sheridan, we would charge $2,500 per month fee plus travel expenses for the months of February through June,” the proposal stated. “As the campaign ramped up, we would charge $5,000 per month for the final months of July and August.”
This proposal suggests that not only did the district consider introducing the bond initiative, but had set a timeline despite more recent comments from school district officials indicating the project is in the beginning phases of long-term planning.
In response to the public records request, the district did provide a report from Ballard*King and Associates, a Colorado consulting firm that conducted a market and operational analysis related to the building. Receipts show that the district paid $17,404.37 to the firm. Dougherty said these expenditures are considered professional services and therefore did not require a formal board vote.
Petition to the court
In a follow-up interview, Dougherty and Bridger stated that members of the district’s capital construction committee have been informally meeting with various stakeholders in the community for two years, to have discussions on the proposed building and what amenities the stakeholders would like to see included in the facility.
In his petition to the court on behalf of The Press, Wyoming Press Association attorney Bruce Moats noted that, “The exploration of constructing a multi-purpose recreation has been shared with many in the community, despite not being shared with the general public. School officials have spoken with representatives of the YMCA, Recreation District, Sheridan City Council, County Commissioners, (Sheridan) Memorial Hospital, youth sports organizations, arts community business owners and other groups. Supt. Dougherty has stated that nobody in these groups have been asked to keep the discussions secret. These discussions render without merit the District’s contention that talking outside an executive session about the facility would likely lead to an increase in prices for a project which has not yet even been proposed to the board. If publicity would likely increase the price then the publicity generated by the discussions with the wide-ranging groups would also do so.”
SCSD 2 has 20 days from its receipt to respond to the petition. A scheduling conference will be requested, based on the court’s schedule and the court will decide if oral arguments will be held. The judge will then decide if the district has met the executive session exemption provided for under law.
Moats said he hopes the court will declare that the district has violated the open meeting act and order executive session minutes regarding the proposed facility to be opened for public inspection.
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