Judge: Casper City Council Violated Open Meetings Law
The Casper City Council violated Wyoming's Public Meetings Act in 2015 when it refused to disclose a public action taken in an executive session, a judge ruled Thursday.
The Public Meetings Act required the council to reveal its decision about a complaint by a resident who asked whether former City Manager John Patterson ordered the illegal use city resources the year before, Natrona County District Court Judge Daniel Forgey said.
But council did not follow the law, the judge said during a telephone conference with the attorneys.
"The Public Meetings Act required council to deal with this," Forgey said in his ruling. "Whatever action council took is null and void."
Mayor Kenyne Humphrey said she would need to learn more about the ruling before she could comment.
Neither City Manager Carter Napier nor Interim City Attorney William Chambers returned calls seeking comment.
The dispute had its roots in 2014 when Patterson (who announced his resignation in May 2015, effective Nov. 1, 2015) denied that work on a retention pond at the Hogadon Ski Area caused silting in neighbors' retention ponds downhill, according to court documents.
Despite that denial, city crews cleaned one of the neighbor's ponds and Patterson paid another land owner $1,200 for him to clean his pond.
Casper resident Debra Cheatham brought her concern about Patterson's action during the public comment period of a council meeting on April 7, 2015.
Cheatham said Patterson illegally used city resources for these remediations, and asked city council to investigate, according to court documents.
On May 5, 2015, council members Robin Mundell and Ray Pacheco said the council reviewed her complaint in executive session on April 14, 2015, made its decision and told her in a letter they couldn't say what was done. Then-Mayor Charlie Powell said the matter was closed.
Former City Attorney William Luben told the council that the Wyoming Public Meetings Act, in conjunction with the Wyoming Public Records Act, authorized it to discuss Cheatham's complaint in executive session because it was about an internal personnel matter -- namely about Patterson.
Luben later recused himself, and the city council hired contract attorney Judith Studer to handle the case.
Cheatham's attorney Bruce Moats said Thursday she would have been content to merely have had a report saying her complaint had no merit, but she couldn't get even that.
Cheatham then sued in June 2015.
"She felt is was important for the council to be open about the actions it takes," Moats said.
After a year of legal wrangling, Cheatham filed a motion for summary judgment to rule in her favor because the council committed an "'action' by a 'collective decision' or a 'collective commitment' to make a decision" that should be made public.
Studer responded to Cheatham, writing that Forgey should dismiss the petition because council has the right to provide guidance to the city manager as a personnel matter.
In April 2016, Forgey tentatively agreed with Cheatham, saying city council must admit it gave direction or guidance to the former city manager during the executive session.
But the final decision came Thursday.
Forgey said there were no disagreements about the facts of the case, only whether the council adhered to the requirements of the Wyoming Public Meetings Act. He said he was at a disadvantage because neither side in the dispute provided him with the minutes of the April 14, 2015, meeting.
Moats said the minutes weren't too important.
In his court documents, echoed by Forgey today, Moats referred to comments by council members on May 5, 2015, such as Mundell's "'decisions that we made'"; and Pacheco's "'sorry that none of us up here will be able to tell you [what happened in executive session] and make you comfortable that what we did was the right thing.'"
Those comments and case law about other questionable meetings bolstered Cheatham's case. Likewise, Forgey said the Public Records Act cited by Luben had no bearing on the Public Meetings Act or the council's behavior.
Moats praised the judge's decision, even though the 2015 executive session decision is old and Patterson is gone.
Forgey's decision will benefit Casper residents, too, Moats said.
"That's very important," he said. "So we know what kind of actions our elected officials are taking on our behalf, and we also are better informed about the issues if we know what actions are taken and can better judge how officials are conducting their duties and responsibilities."
The decision also is good for the state, Moats said, citing a Wyoming Supreme Court decision.
"This is another pronouncement that there's heavy weight on the side of transparency in government in Wyoming," he said.