AURORA | A majority of Aurora’s City Council voted in private on Monday to dismiss a censure process pending against Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky — a vote that experts say was illegal under state transparency laws.
Jurinsky’s attorney, David Lane, as well as councilmembers Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano all said the group decided to end the censure process in a closed session prior to the start of their March 14 regular meeting.
According to Coombs and Marcano, Mayor Mike Coffman asked individual council members whether they supported the process continuing, and after a majority said they did not, the city attorney said the process would be formally halted.
Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the vote needed to have been public to be legitimate.
“The ‘roll call vote’ of all city council members on whether they supported or opposed moving forward on the censure investigation is a flagrant, black-and-white, open-and-shut violation of the Open Meetings Law,” Zansberg wrote in an email.
State law bars local public bodies from making such decisions in private, said the coalition’s executive director, Jeff Roberts. He cited a statute that generally prohibits groups from adopting “any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action” in closed session.
Officially, the council convened the session to “receive legal advice on specific legal questions,” which is one of a handful of reasons for which local governments can legally meet in private.
“If they were going in there for legal advice, that’s what it should have been for, to get answers to specific questions from their attorney,” Roberts said. “They’re not supposed to be making decisions in executive sessions.”
When asked how City Attorney Dan Brotzman’s office would justify the council reaching its decision in executive session, city spokesman Ryan Luby wrote in an email Thursday that “voting is not permitted in executive session, but Council can and will provide direction to legal counsel.”
“City staff cannot disclose attorney-client discussions,” he wrote. “However, outside legal counsel is handling this matter and is meeting with Council Member Jurinsky’s attorneys. We anticipate an update at Monday’s Study Session.”
“Courts across the nation have held that a public body must vote, in public, to provide direction to its attorney’s about whether to file a lawsuit or an appeal,” Zansberg said in his email. “Directing the city attorney to terminate an active censure process is no different.”
Council rules also stipulate that, while an executive session can be called to receive legal advice regarding the process of disciplining an elected official, “no action or decision may occur in the executive session.”
Coombs and Marcano both said Brotzman was present during the executive session and that the decision was reached after the mayor asked each individual council member whether they supported the censure process being halted. The topic of the censure did not come up during the portion of the March 14 meeting that was open to the public.
Marcano initiated the censure process in late January after Jurinsky insulted police chief Vanessa Wilson on a regional talk radio program and told listeners she believed Wilson and deputy chief Darin Parker should be removed from office.
Jurinsky also detailed a meeting with Wilson where she encouraged the chief to replace Parker.
In response, Marcano accused Jurinsky of violating a council regulation that requires members to act “in a professional manner” toward city staffers as well as a section of the charter that bars council members from meddling in the appointment of employees who fall under the authority of the city manager.
Once Marcano formally started the process of censuring Jurinsky — which would have had to earn the support of a majority of council members before the councilwoman faced any discipline — attorneys with Burns, Figa and Will hired by the city started investigating and gathering evidence that could have been presented in a hearing on the topic.
Lane warned in February that Jurinsky would consider suing Marcano and the city if the censure process wasn’t halted by March 4, a deadline that was later extended to the 14th.
On Monday, according to Coombs and Marcano, Jurinsky began arguing with the investigating attorneys and Brotzman before any of the evidence gathered could be presented.
Jurinsky did not respond to requests for an interview on Thursday.
Coombs and Marcano said council members opposed to the censure characterized the process as a waste of taxpayer money.
While Mayor Mike Coffman at one point suggested the matter be discussed more at an upcoming study session, the two said he ultimately asked each member whether they thought the process should continue — all but Coombs, Marcano, Ruben Medina and Crystal Murillo said they did not, those present said.
Marcano later called Monday’s session a “naked show of partisan corruption.”
“I think this would have served a really good public purpose,” he said of the council opting instead to decide on the censure in private. “This whole thing was a clown show. … It was effectively a roll-call vote.”
“It was a pretty bizarre meeting,” Coombs said. “This turned into a purely political process.”
Marcano said the city is now working with Lane to settle the process, and that a letter of stipulation could be released Friday.
According to Luby, Brotzman’s office will present “an update” on the censure process at the council’s study session on Monday.