AURORA | A week after a majority of Aurora City Council members voted to throw out allegations pending against Danielle Jurinsky, the city has doubled down on its assertion that the council did nothing wrong by deciding the matter in a closed meeting.
City Attorney Dan Brotzman publicly acknowledged the decision to shelve the censure process for the first time on Monday, saying the council “gave direction” to city staffers to reach a settlement with Jurinsky’s attorney, David Lane, that will address the scope of the investigation, how attorney fees will be paid and other topics.
The conflict between Jurinsky and Councilmember Juan Marcano boiled over in late January, after Jurinsky belittled police Chief Vanessa Wilson on a talk-radio show and described efforts to have Deputy Chief Darin Parker replaced. The remarks were made during an interview with local radio host Steffan Tubbs on KNUS.
Jurinsky railed against Wilson’s leadership, saying the chief had failed to support the officers under her command. She told Tubbs’ listeners “you are not safe in Aurora” and said the city could fix the problems of police turnover by removing the chief.
“She’s trash,” Jurinsky said. “Chief Vanessa Wilson is trash.”
The next day, Marcano objected, accusing Jurinsky of violating the city charter by involving herself in the appointment of employees who fall under the city manager’s authority.
Marcano also accused her of violating a section of the council’s rules of order and procedure which specify that, “when interacting with City employees or members of the general public, individual Council Members shall conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times.”
He began the formal process of censuring Jurinsky, which could have resulted in the lawmaker being disciplined for her alleged flouting of city rules. Had the city council agreed by a two-thirds majority vote to censure Jurinsky, it is unclear what discipline could have been imposed.
After the censure allegations were made by Marcano, the city hired an outside law firm — Burns, Figa and Will — to investigate the accusations.
Jurinsky argued that was free to express her opinions in public, characterizing the censure as an attack on her First Amendment rights. She also disputed Marcano’s claim that she violated the charter by suggesting Wilson replace Parker.
In February, Jurinsky and Lane discussed suing the city and Marcano if the censure process wasn’t halted by March 4, a deadline that was later pushed to March 14.
While the city wrote in a February statement that a public hearing on the topic of the censure was scheduled for March 30, on March 14, the council met behind closed doors to discuss the item.
According to Marcano and Councilmember Alison Coombs, who expressed ethical concerns with the March 14 executive session, opponents of the censure slammed it as a waste of taxpayer money and insisted the council halt the process.
Brotzman said the council did not vote on the 14th. According to Coombs and Marcano, Mayor Mike Coffman asked each council member in the session to weigh in on whether the process should continue, and members voted along party lines to break off the censure, according to council members at the closed meeting.
Brotzman told the group his office would work with Lane to conclude the process.
Lawyers and lawyer fees become prominent
The city attorney said to the council on Monday that the city was still trying to reach a settlement with Lane, and that the city was on the hook for Jurinsky’s attorney fees since the council had not voted to confirm any of the violations.
Council rules specify that “if, after a public hearing thereon, a violation has not been established, the Council Member who is the subject of the hearing shall be entitled to reimbursement from the City for all reasonable attorney fees incurred in his or her defense.”
Hostility has continued to simmer among city council members, with allusion to counter-censure charges. Brotzman said in response to a question from Jurinsky that disclosing information to the media about a closed session is also prohibited under council rules.
“If that were to happen, which it did this past week, what can we do to rectify that? What would that punishment be?,” Jurinsky asked.
“That would be a council rules violation subject to censure,” Brotzman replied.
Coombs and Marcano both acknowledged that they were exposing themselves to potential censure when they disclosed information about the March 14 executive session to The Sentinel.
The decision on the censure that was made behind closed doors on the March 14 has been criticized by state open meeting law experts as illegal under statute. Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, called the move a “flagrant, black-and-white, open-and-shut violation of the Open Meetings Law.”
The coalition’s executive director, Jeff Roberts, also questioned how the official purpose for excluding the public, “to receive legal advice on specific legal questions,” lined up with the action taken by the group.
“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 told the Sentinel last week. “They’re not supposed to be making decisions in executive sessions.”
Council rules also say 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.”
The city has since denied a records request made by The Sentinel for the recording of the executive session, with City Clerk Kadee Rodriguez calling it “privileged attorney/client communication” and “exempt from disclosure.”
When asked whether it was appropriate for Jurinsky to be present during the executive session, since her attorney had floated the idea of suing the city and a council member, city spokesman Ryan Luby wrote on behalf of Brotzman that Lane had asked to participate in the session and was denied.
“Council does not direct Mr. Lane’s participation and his attendance would have resulted in an open meetings violation,” Luby said in an email. “As a Member of Council, Ms. Jurinsky may not be barred from attending meetings of Council. She is prohibited from negotiating with Council as an individual but no statutory or case law would prohibit her voice being heard as a member of Council.”
Mayor Mike Coffman previously recused himself from executive session meetings that were related to his lawsuit against the city over a campaign finance ordinance, according to multiple Sentinel sources.
Luby insisted the Burns, Figa and Will attorneys were helping to provide legal advice, and that council rules allow the city “to retain special legal counsel for purposes of preparing and presenting the specification of charges.”
“Outside counsel was present to discuss the scope of the investigation and First Amendment issues concerning the radio show and the conversations with the Chief and City Manager that were identified during the radio broadcast,” Luby wrote.
“Burns Figa was also present to update counsel on the status of the interviews as well as discovery issues identified by Mr. Lane. Conversations were truncated with direction from Council to halt attorney expenditures through stipulation.”
The spokesman previously said on behalf of Brotzman that “voting is not permitted in executive session, but Council can and will provide direction to legal counsel” when asked whether he believed the session was permitted by law.
A new look at the censure process
Council members on both sides of the aisle blasted the city’s current protocols for following up on violations of council rules and the city charter and code this week.
But while conservatives blamed outside attorneys for dragging out the process and creating a “kangaroo court,” Marcano argued the censure process didn’t go far enough to curb “partisan corruption” among lawmakers reluctant to punish one of their own.
Registered Republicans and Democrats routinely vote in a partisan block on most controversial matters.
The censure process came up at the council’s study session Monday, where Coffman encouraged members to review the rules promulgated by other cities, as well as in an ad hoc committee meeting Tuesday, at the behest of conservative Councilmember Francoise Bergan.
“I think everybody agreed that it was very complicated and attorney-intensive,” said Bergan, who reportedly voted against the censure moving forward and who raised the topic at the committee meeting.
Conservative member Dustin Zvonek, who also reportedly voted against the censure during the executive session, argued that attorneys hired as investigators have a “perverse financial incentive” to prolong the censure process.
“We’ve got to just completely blow up this kangaroo court process we have right now,” Zvonek said Tuesday, arguing that a censure should be handled like other resolutions during public council meetings without outside attorneys getting involved.
“I think we should have this out in the open,” he said.
Zvonek and other council members who attended the ad hoc committee meeting said they would still want to guarantee the council member targeted by a censure is given enough of a heads-up that they can prepare to defend themselves.
Currently, council rules dictate the first step of censure is the accuser presenting their allegations in writing to the accused.
Zvonek argued that, by handling the censure like a regular resolution, the public would be able to judge for themselves Marcano’s claims that the majority was acting “corruptly.”
“If the majority votes against it when it’s clear that the person actually violated the rule or the (city) charter, then the public’s going to see that,” he said.
Jurinsky said Tuesday that she thought the council should review all of its rules to evaluate their constitutionality. When Deputy City Attorney Jack Bajorek indicated council rules regulating members’ speech would only be enforceable on the dais, Jurinsky criticized his office for not intervening in Marcano’s censure.
“That’s exactly why I want these rules combed through,” Jurinsky said. “Where was your office telling Councilmember Marcano that … council members do still have First Amendment rights?”
On Monday, Marcano argued that the censure process was flawed, not because of the influence of outside attorneys, but because it gives the majority of council members a free hand in deciding how to interpret city rules.
“Once the motion is made, I don’t think it’s actually appropriate for council to even really be involved,” he said. “I’d like to actually see us removed from that process, because I’ve seen firsthand how you can have partisan corruption in this now.”
The council member also said he didn’t think the existing requirement that a two-thirds supermajority vote to formalize a censure was enough to protect against abuses, adding that “you can use gamesmanship and favoritism to protect bad actors from accountability.”
City staffers said they would draft the rule changes proposed by the ad hoc committee and present them in an upcoming study session.