Two Colorado newspapers are crying foul after the CSU System’s governing board held private discussions about one of its members — now-chancellor finalist Joe Blake — which a Denver attorney said Wednesday violated state Sunshine rules.
The discussions, held in an executive session Tuesday, sparked a lawsuit from the Fort Collins Coloradoan and the Pueblo Chieftain that could make public the required audio files recorded during the meeting.
If a judge finds the BOG in violation of state law, its decision to name Blake the sole finalist will be void.
During the closed portion of the session, the board interviewed two search committee-recommended finalists for the position before its public vote, BOG spokesperson Michele McKinney said.
McKinney said Blake recused himself from his duties as a board member before his interview. She said he won’t return to his post unless the board decides not hire him on July 1 — an unlikely scenario, she said.
Citing the Colorado Open Meetings Law, a statement prepared by the system’s general legal counsel said, “The purpose of the executive session was not to discuss Mr. Blake in his capacity as a member of the Board of Governors, rather, it was to discuss the search committee’s recommendations related to candidates for employment, including Mr. Blake.”
The COML forbids undisclosed review of members of any public body by that body, and Chris Beall, an attorney who is representing the Coloradoan and the Chieftain, said the board’s decision to close its session is in violation of the statute.
“The appropriate thing (for Blake) would have been to resign and then submit his application (for the chancellor position),” Beall said. “Because he did not choose to resign, he cannot be discussed privately.”
There was no public deliberation prior to the BOG’s public vote, which saw a lone dissenter, Pueblo attorney Tom Farley.
“The fact that there was no discussion on that vote suggests to me that the board actually made the real decision behind closed doors,” Beall said.
The board’s search for its chancellor — which did not include a seat for any student or faculty member on its committee — is seeing mounting speculation among state legislators, many of who suggest that Blake was singled out for the position months ago.
State Representatives John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said they plan to clarify the rumors with the board in the near future, noting they’d already conducted discussions about the issue with Rich Schweigert, the system’s chief financial officer, who told them the BOG conducted its search fairly.
Taylor Smoot, student government president, said that his own concerns about the board’s search proceedings were alleviated after he witnessed, as a non-voting member of the BOG, the interviews conducted Tuesday.
“(Blake) really is the best man for the job,” he said, calling the university “lucky” to have the 73-year-old president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce as chancellor.
Kefalas said a bill that died in state Senate Tuesday — which would have required university boards to accept and make public at least three finalist names — was introduced as a result of the stirrings.
Bob Moore, executive editor of the Coloradoan, echoed the legislators’ claims in his defense of the Fort Collins newspaper’s lawsuit, filed electronically late Wednesday evening. He called the legal action the result of a “broader issue.”
“I believe that since Colorado State University has been led by the Board of Governors, it has become secretive and has increasingly turned the public away from discussions that should be made public,” he said.
Moore cited the university’s repeated refusal to make public the reasons behind former CSU President Larry Penley’s resignation and to reveal former CSU Police Chief Dexter Yarbrough’s letter of resignation as instances in which the BOG skirted its duties to its stakeholders.
“The taxpayers and certainly the students of Colorado State University deserve some explanation as to why (the resignations occurred), and (the BOG has) offered none,” he said.
The board is required to keep the chancellor position open for 14 days after making its finalist’s name public. The role was created just this year, as CSU-Fort Collins presidents previously maintained both duties.
News Managing Editor Elyse Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.