Aurora lawmakers give tentative OK to censure process as open meetings lawsuit looms

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AURORA | Aurora City Council members moved forward with a proposal to simplify an arcane peer censure process currently part of a potential lawsuit by Sentinel Colorado.

City lawmakers gave initial approve to a new system that allows council members to introduce resolutions of censure, offer evidence and ask for a vote. A conviction of breaking city council rules and warranting censure would require a two-thirds vote of the city council.

The censure issue arose a few weeks ago when City Councilmember Juan Marcano initiated the censure process against Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky after she made defamatory comments about Aurora’s former police chief.

That process led to a closed city council meeting and allegations of the city council violating state open meeting laws.

Attorneys for Sentinel Colorado and the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press insisted in a letter sent to the City of Aurora last week that a recording of a closed-door meeting regarding the attempted censure of a City Council member be released to the public.

Jurinsky, the target of the censure attempt, said recently she was considering censure action against Juan Marcano, who first sought censure against Jurinsky.

Since the meeting issue became public, Jurinsky has indicated she might seek a censure effort against Marcano for disclosing information to the media. It’s possible the new rules, once finalized could be used in a censure question then.  

Marcano was joined by council members Alison Coombs and Ruben Medina in pushing back against the proposed changes to the process, saying an independent entity or commission should hear the complaints.

“Otherwise, the city council is the judge, jury and executioner,” Marcano said. He and Coombs said the process would become a partisan affair.

Proponents said the reformed system would allow for the public to decide whether a censure question is legitimate.

“You’re going to have to make a case,” Councilmember Dustin Zvonek said.

Coombs, who said the Jurinsky censure was mishandled in the city council’s closed meeting, said that was the case under existing rules.

“The current rule actually does provide for a public hearing,” Coombs said, referring to allegations of impropriety about how the process was conducted. “We just didn’t do that last time.”

The first censure was initiated by Marcano regarding Jurinsky’s comments on a regional conservative talk radio program in January, where she called former Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson “trash” and called for her and deputy chief Darin Parker to be removed from his post.

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.

Jurinsky described the censure attempt as an infringement on her First Amendment rights and retained attorney David Lane, who warned that she would consider suing Marcano and the city if the censure process wasn’t halted by March 4, later pushed back to March 14.

On March 14, City Council members met in closed session to discuss the issue, effectively dismissing the action and directing city staff to negotiate and pay Jurinsky’s legal fees, estimated to be about $16,000.

The Sentinel, through its attorney, says the vote on the censure action and other activities in closed session were inappropriate and a violation of state open meeting laws.

“Because the action taken behind closed-doors, and in secret, was in violation of the (Colorado Open Meetings Law), the record of the discussion, the recording, and all other meeting materials must be made available for public inspection,” attorney Rachael Johnson said in the letter addressed to City Attorney Dan Brotzman.

According to prior reporting from The Sentinel, a majority of Aurora’s City Council voted in private in a closed session at the beginning of their March 14 meeting to dismiss a censure process pending against Jurinsky. The council also gave direction to city staff to work with Jurinsky’s attorney to reach a settlement to pay her legal fees.

Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney who specializes in media law and is the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told The Sentinel in March that the vote needed to be public to be legitimate and was a “flagrant, black-and-white, open-and-shut violation of the Open Meetings Law.”

Representatives for the city attorney’s office have claimed that there was no misconduct, and that the City Council had acted within the law.

According to councilmembers Marcano and Coombs, 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.

The Sentinel originally sent a records request to the city March 18 asking for a recording of the portion of the executive session pertaining to Jurinsky’s censure. In a March 22 email, Aurora City Clerk Kadee Rodriguez denied the request, saying that the recording “is privileged attorney/client communication and is exempt from disclosure.”

In her letter, Johnson rebuked that claim. She said the city violated open meeting laws by failing to disclose the subject matter of the legal advice to be discussed in executive session, which would not be a violation of attorney-client privilege in and of itself.

Additionally, based on The Sentinel’s reporting of what took place during that private meeting, Johnson said it does not appear that the City Council was actually discussing privileged information during the executive session, but was instead discussing whether to shelve the censure process. This is a violation of open meeting law, she said.

The city also violated open meeting law by taking a roll call vote while in executive session to determine whether Jurinsky’s censure process should go forward, Johnson said. Under Colorado law, elected officials are not permitted to take formal action while in executive session.

She pushed back on the city’s assertion that the City Council is allowed to “give direction” to staff in executive session as long as they do not formally vote, citing a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that directing a public body to take action during a closed session constitutes a formal action and is a violation of transparency laws.

“In light of all of the above, under both the COML and the (Colorado Open Records Act), the Council’s actions with respect to the March 14 executive session were unlawful and its decision to prevent my clients from inspecting the recording of that session is unfounded,” Johnson said.

The tentatively approved measure now goes to the council floor for final consideration. A date has not yet been set. 

 

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Joe Felice
Joe Felice
9 months ago

I agree that these types of contentious issues should be deliberated by a commission outside of the Council itself. We can see that some intend to misuse this process as a form of political retribution and that requiring a 2/3 vote will rarely result in an affirmative censure vote.

What some council members don’t seem to understand is that they are entitled to express any opinion they like so long as they do so appropriately and professionally as official representatives of the people.

Robert L Andrews
Robert L Andrews
9 months ago

Do City Council members lose their 1st Amendment rights when elected?

Melissa
Melissa
9 months ago

Yes, they kind of do. Just like any of us when we’re employed by an entity, we’re required to follow the rules established by the employer (in the case, the City of Aurora). So, when they were elected to their council positions, they we required to follow the established rules and regulations. And I believe the First Amendment applies to the government in relation to the free speech exercised by “citizens”. In this case with the council member, they’re actually an employee.

sugar
sugar
9 months ago

no, but the Supreme Court recently ruled that elected officials may be prosecuted if they disobey
the rules.

Tawny Fox
Tawny Fox
9 months ago

According to little Mikey Coffman, yes.

Dean
9 months ago

You want conversation about this potential lawsuit and some threating lawyer letter. Where is a copy of this letter? I guess we are expected to know what teeth this “lawsuit looms” letter has told the city.

Tawny Fox
Tawny Fox
9 months ago

Tiny frightened little mouse Mike Coffman in one hand says big bad Marcano can’t call him a liar (when Mikey is provably lying), but on the other holds illegal closed meetings to disallow a censure of Dollar-Store-Marjorie-Taylor-Greene’s utter unprofessionalism.

And now they want to make sure the citizens are not privy to decisions about censures. Why could that be? Because Coffman, Bergan, Zvonek, Jurinsky, Sundberg, and Gardner do not believe they serve the public. They think the public serves them.

sugar
sugar
9 months ago
Reply to  Tawny Fox

There was supposed to be a meeting at the Aurora Municipal Center on March 30 where citizens could
learn what was going on and ask questions.

Obviously with the no vote in Executive Session, this
didn’t happen.