County attorney, AG consider civil penalties against school district

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SHERIDAN — The Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle has contacted the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office to see if they would pursue civil penalties against Sheridan County School District 2 for violating both the state’s open meetings law and the open records law.

On Feb. 25, The Sheridan Press submitted a request to Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle, asking him to pursue the cases against the school district and board of trustees for the violations.

 

A recreational facility

Last month, Whitney Benefits hosted an educational summit at which Sheridan County School District 2 board President Richard Bridger mentioned plans for a large, indoor recreational facility.

On Jan. 31, The Sheridan Press made a public documents request pursuant to Wyoming law for any and all documents related to the proposed facility, including meeting minutes, emails and correspondence. Wyoming law requires these documents be made available for public inspection upon request.

Documents were turned over Feb. 5 during an interview and no indication was given that more documents were to be released.

“… here’s all your documents, too, that you guys asked for so I’ll give those to you,” SCSD2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty said in the interview.

Documents received from the district indicated that SCSD2 had spent more than $17,000 with Ballard*King and Associates to conduct a market analysis for the recreation facility. That report showed the facility could operated on a $700,000 to $1.7 million annual deficit. Estimates for the building itself, done by the school district in conjunction with TSP, Inc. of Sheridan showed the building could cost $45 million.

But the documents turned over by the school district Feb. 5 did not include at least two documents it should have — a proposal from Hilltop Public Solutions of Billings outlining a marketing campaign for a bond issue to fund the building and an email exchange between Dougherty and Northern Wyoming Community College District President Paul Young indicating SCSD2 was considering a May 2014 bond issue election.

Those two documents, and others were turned over Feb. 28, after they had been received from other sources and been reported on in The Sheridan Press.

The Sheridan Press has alleged that not turning over the documents when requested was a violation of the public records law, which states that anyone who knowingly or intentionally violates the act is liable for a pnalty of up to $750.

 

Closed meetings

The large multi-purpose recreation facility has been discussed by the school district for approximately two years with local interest groups, but had not been discussed in public meetings. Dougherty admitted in the Feb. 5 interview with The Press that the project had been discussed in executive, or closed, sessions of the SCSD2 board of trustees.

Wyoming’s open meetings law states that, all meetings of a public body must be open unless one meets an exemption listed in the statutes. Common exemptions include when the governing body must discuss personnel issues, real estate or ongoing litigation.

Dougherty said the discussions regarding the recreation facility fell under the real estate exemption of the law. He added that the school board only discussed the project in terms of its potential future footprint.

Yet in order to discuss the footprint of a potential building, the board would have first had to discuss the project itself, which it has not done publicly in an open board meeting.

On Feb. 12, The Press filed a petition in 4th Judicial District Court alleging the school district violated the state’s executive sessions law by holding closed sessions in regards to the proposed recreational facility.

The petition filed by The Press in district court asks the judge to rule that the school board violated the open meetings law and requests the judge require the board make the meeting minutes from those closed sessions in which the project was discussed public.

On Feb. 28th, an attorney for Sheridan County School District 2 filed a response to The Sheridan Press’ petition. Kendal Hoopes of Sheridan law firm Yonkee & Toner drafted the response in which the school district denies the Press’ allegations as worded and claims the district operated appropriately under the Wyoming Public Meetings Act.

The law states that any member or members of an agency who knowingly or intentionally violate the law are liable for a civil penalty not to exceed $750.

 

Why the county attorney?

Wyoming’s Public Records Act states that any action pursuant to that law “shall be initiated by the attorney general of the appropriate county attorney.” The public meetings statutes do not specify who can pursue the civil penalties in court.

The fact that civil penalties in one law could only be pursued by the county attorney or the attorney general is why The Press sent the Feb. 25 request to the county attorney. The Press has asked Redle to pursue civil penalties both for the violation of open meetings law and the violation of the public records law.

On Monday, Redle said he contacted the attorney general’s office because SCSD2 school board member Erica O’Dell works in the Sheridan County Attorney’s Office. Redle said he is awaiting word fromthe attorney general.

If either Redle of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office takes up the case, The Press has asked that its petition filed earlier in February be suspended pending the outcome of the county attorney or attorney general’s case.

 

By |Mar. 4, 2014|

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