Apr 262009
 
Authors: Aaron Hedge

The body that makes student fee recommendations approved allocation of more than $1 million Monday –/a vote that doesn’t count because officials closed the meeting to the public after receiving what lawyers are calling bad advice from university legal counsel.

The Student Fee Review Board barred the public from its last two meetings by going into what is called “executive session” to discuss student government’s budget for next year, which two Colorado attorneys say is a violation of state Sunshine rules, which dictate that public board meetings have to be open.

The SFRB, which is mostly made up of students, said they did so after receiving confirmation from CSU legal counsel that the action was legal.

Amy Parsons, the university’s head legal adviser, said last week that the board was within its statutory rights to close the meetings because it doesn’t qualify as a state public body, which, she said, exempts it from the Colorado Open Meetings Law.

Parsons said the only CSU board that is subject to the law is the university System Board of Governors.

The law states that “any board, committee, commission, or other advisory, policy-making, rule-making, decision-making, or formally constituted body of any state agency, state authority, governing board of a state institution of higher education … and any public or private entity to which the state, or an official thereof, has delegated a governmental decision-making function but does not include persons on the administrative staff of the state public body.”

The SFRB moves to approve fee packages before sending its decisions to the BOG.

“As it would apply to the CSU System, that definition only includes the ‘governing board of a state institution of higher education,'” Parsons said in an e-mail message to the Collegian. “So the Board of Governor meetings are required to be public . but other meetings for the SFRB or other boards on campus are not .”

But Chris Beall, a Denver-based lawyer with a firm that represents Colorado media organizations including the Collegian, said the language in the rule clearly classifies the SFRB as a state public body.

“Ms. Parsons is incorrect,” Beall said in a phone message after reviewing SFRB policy and minutes from the meeting sent electronically.

“It’s my opinion that the SFRB is subject to the Colorado Open Meetings Law, and that rule prohibits those meetings from being closed,” Beall said later in a phone interview.

Beall said Parsons interpreted the rule too narrowly.

Parsons defended her advice, citing Colorado appellate court cases in which she said the law was interpreted narrowly.

“. ever since this statute passed in the 1970s, it has consistently been interpreted that as to public institutions of higher education, it only applies to the governing boards,” Parsons said in a separate e-mail Sunday.

The SFRB provides its recommendation to the BOG after approving fee packages, but Parsons said the board exists at “an institutional level,” making it an entity independent of the BOG.

Fort Collins attorney and former CSU communications law instructor Lee Christian said Parsons’ interpretation works against the concept of Sunshine rules.

“That seems to contravene the purpose of the open meetings law,” Christian said in a phone interview.

Quinn Girrens, the chair of the board, said SFRB members closed the meetings because the Associated Students of CSU fee package was undergoing sensitive negotiations.

After she and SFRB Adviser Mike Ellis exchanged e-mails with Parsons and asked about the legality of going into executive session, Collegian reporters were banned from the meetings, which were held the last two Mondays.

Beall said the SFRB’s vote to approve the student fee package is void under the COML.

Girrens said the SFRB will vote again in an open meeting to approve the fee package after the Collegian inquired about it.

Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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