The Sentinel would love to tell you what went on behind closed doors at city hall in January before city lawmakers agreed to pay $16,000 to a fellow lawmaker being rebuked for trash-talking then-police chief Vanessa Wilson on talk radio.
First, when The Sentinel sued the city to force them to provide the recording of a closed meeting among council members, which clearly violated the spirit and letter of Colorado open meeting laws, we won our case. Briefly.
The Sentinel is still fighting the mystery.
This all started earlier this year when Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky appeared Jan. 27 on a local right-wing talk radio show.
Jurinsky spent considerable on-air time disparaging changes in Aurora’s beleaguered police department.
During the radio show, KNUS host Steffan Tubbs asked Jurinsky how she would fix staffing and other problems in the police department.
“We remove the chief immediately, and with her takes out the trash of the deputy chief of police, Darin Parker.”
She also called now-former police chief Vanessa Wilson “trash.”
Wilson was later fired by the Aurora city manager, who insists it had nothing to do with Jurinsky’s pressure. Parker retired after Wilson was sacked.
The radio talk and other events prompted fellow Councilmember Juan Marcano to seek censure proceedings against Jurinsky.
Jurinsky said her comments were free speech. Marcano said she crossed a line and was improperly interfering with Aurora government, including admitting that she tried to persuade Wilson to replace Parker.
And so Jurisnky lawyered up with local attorney David Lane. The city hired outside lawyers to begin the process of finding out just whether Jurinsky’s behavior and meetings actually did violate city regs.
On March 14, the city council met in executive session to talk about the censure issue, a dubious move to begin with, given that the public has every right to understand the allegations and any defense Jurinsky could offer.
During the meeting, according to city council members and staff there, attorneys were supposed to provide details on fact-finding, shedding light on Marcano’s claims and Jurinsky’s public admissions.
They did none of that, according to multiple sources.
Instead, reportedly, the secret meeting became a verbal melee with Jurinsky making a variety of claims, including that her own attorney should have accompanied her in the closed city council meeting.
This really happened, witnesses said.
After time spent arguing, but before paid outside city lawyers could present any evidence on the allegations against Jurinsky, Mayor Mike Coffman polled city council members on whether to kill the whole thing.
When you’re an elected official, it’s called voting. When you’re defending the city’s improper vote behind closed doors, it’s called “polling.”
When The Sentinel demanded a recording of the meeting to find out what was said to persuade lawmakers against a censure process that, under city law, must be carried out in public, we were told that it was a legally private matter because attorneys were in the room.
A week later, the city, in public session, without explaining, agreed to pay Jurinsky $16,000 tax dollars to hire Lane to defend her for allegations the public only read about here and never heard about in a required meeting.
So The Sentinel, backed by lawyers from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, asked a local court to decide whether Aurora violated open meetings law by allow city council members to decide, in secret, a measure that would hand over $16,000 to a fellow lawmaker to defend against allegations that the city paid to research and probably even considered.
On July 26, Arapahoe County Judge District Court Judge Elizabeth Beebe Volz agreed with The Sentinel and ordered the city to come clean.
Rather than ruling that the city violated the open meeting law, the judge ruled the city had not posted the closed meeting correctly, under state law.
“The Court finds that the subject of the Executive Session was to receive information from counsel on the process to be followed in addressing a censure complaint. The Council did not ‘vote’ on ending the censure action as alleged in the Sentinel’s complaint, however, there was a roll-call taken on what direction to give to legal counsel on how to proceed. While this action might very well fall into the category of legal advice, the Court is still faced with the fact that the announcement of the Executive Session does not appear to comply with the requirements of the applicable statutes.”
Then Beebe Volz essentially asked whether that was OK with Aurora.
“The Court is, however, also mindful of the special status attorney-client communications hold and therefore will grant the Council an opportunity to consider the Court’s ruling prior to release, in order to take any action they deem appropriate,” Beene Volz wrote.
They said “no.” Last week, Beebe Volz agreed.
“Here, it appears clear to the Court that the March 28, 2022 public meeting of the Council clearly identified what took place at the March 14, 2022 executive session and that the Council publicly considered the proposed action to adopt a stipulation to terminate any further investigation into Council Member Jurinsky’s conduct,” Beebe Volz said in the ruling.
Clearly, the city did not offer any detail or explanation to the public in its March 28 meeting, according to tapes and reports of that public session.
And despite the judge giving Aurora a temporary win on an onerous technicality, we’re determined to force the city to tell the public what went on inside that meeting.
Who stopped the city’s attorneys from presenting what they gleaned during their investigation? What were the arguments made by city lawmakers in defense of and against Jurinsky’s behavior? Who considered it good government to award a fellow lawmaker $16,000?
City law unequivocally makes clear that a city council member can be awarded legal fees to defend against censure only after the case is adjudicated — publicly — by fellow lawmakers, and only after the accused city lawmakers is acquitted by a vote.
That never happened, unless it happened in the secret meeting.
We’re not done yet. We’re weighing our next legal steps.
Not only are rulings on cases like this important to Aurora, making clear that the public’s business must be conducted in public, but it’s critical for every resident in the state.
Allowing Aurora lawmakers to secretly decide one another’s political fates, and spend taxpayer money on consequences, is anathema to open, responsible government.
The fastest and easiest way forward is for the city to just release the recordings of this secret meeting without a court forcing them. Doing the right thing in the future will be much easier by just deciding to do the right thing now. All that takes is six votes on the city council.
Read the court documents here: