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Paonia trustee questions board behavior, sanctions threatened

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The Paonia Town Board of Trustees is considering sanctions against a trustee after he released a series of board-related emails during a recent public meeting.

At the May 9 board meeting, trustee Bill Brunner provided copies of emails, sent during 2016 and 2017, to the media and the town clerk. The emails were all from Brunner's account used during his 2016 town board campaign and his town-sponsored email. They were addressed to all board members, the mayor and mayor pro tempore, the town attorney and town clerk, members of the media, and former town manager Jane Berry.

Under the Colorado's Open Meetings Law, electronic mail communications between two or more board members may constitute an illegal public meeting if they contain anything more than informational content. Trustees voted, 2-1, to direct town attorney Bo Nerlin to review the emails and rule whether any information contained in the emails was improperly disclosed. If Nerlin, who was attending his first meeting as town attorney, determines they contain privileged information, the board would then decide on whether or not to impose sanctions on Brunner.

Trustee Suzanne Watson voted "nay" and Brunner abstained from voting. Trustees David Bradford and Chelsea Bookout were absent due to prior obligations.

During the last three board meetings, trustee Watson stated that she believes a violation of the board's "Standard of Conduct for the Elected Officials of the Town," adopted by the board on April 11, occurred in an executive session. The session was held for the purpose of receiving legal advice on the Colorado Open Records Act, "specific to attorney/client communication/e-mails excluded in a (Colorado Open Records Act) request." Then town attorney David Marek also attended the session.

Speaking during an agenda item on Colorado Open Meetings law during the May 9 meeting, which Brunner requested, Watson said that she was "physically challenged" by a trustee during the April 11 session. "What happened was very shocking and it was hard to deal with," said Watson.

She made a statement following the executive session, which was not included in the draft meeting minutes. At the April 25 meeting, trustees voted to have Watson's comments included in the minutes.

Mayor Charles Stewart has repeatedly attempted to stifled discussion on what happened in the closed-door meeting. Brunner was gaveled to order by Stewart while attempting to read a prepared statement on the alleged violation. Stewart threatened sanctions and cautioned Brunner about discussing in an open meeting anything that was said in an executive session.

Stewart argued that because the issue was raised on April 25, and not April 11, and because no motion to take action was made by Watson or any board member as required under Robert's Rules of Order, the issue is "permanently resolved."

There are exceptions to the timeliness requirement written into Robert's Rules, said Brunner. Reading from Robert's Rules, Brunner said that a point of order can be raised at any time when a board member notices a violation of applicable procedural rules prescribed by federal, state, or local law. "I believe there were statements and actions made in that executive session that fall squarely under that ... provision."

Brunner said these issues will be "an ongoing theme with this board, if the past is any indication of the present. If this board can't deal with what happened in that executive session, then it is totally morally bankrupt and has no business in any kind of a leadership position in this community."

"I'm seriously trying to work within the framework that is there for a reason," said Brunner. "But I have some concerns and statements that I have to make or I feel complicit in things that are improper."

Referring to a statement he said was made by Marek at the April 25 meeting, Brunner said he understands that the subject matter of an executive session is privileged, "But certain behavior was not." Brunner then asked Nerlin if behavior not related to the stated purpose of the closed meeting is privileged.

Nerlin said he wouldn't give legal advice on the issue since this is his first official meeting with the board and he has no background information. The firm he works for, J. David Reed, PC, believes "it is very important that the . . . contents of the executive session remain confidential," said Nerlin.

When the public was asked for comments, Paonia resident Constantine Hirschfeld said he is "disgusted" with the board. "I have been sitting in these meetings for I don't know how many months, and all I see is a bunch of arguing. Nothing ever gets done, nothing completed, and I'm very disgusted in this board," he said. "These meetings would probably last half as long if there wasn't so much arguing." He suggested trustees prepare for meetings, and if they don't know what's going on, "You shouldn't be on the board."

A motion by trustee Karen Budinger to schedule a training session with Nerlin, as soon as possible, on meeting procedures unanimously passed. "These things do come up, and we just need a procedure to handle them," said Budinger.

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