ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — A nonprofit has filed a civil complaint alleging that the Strasburg Fire Protection District board of directors violated the state’s open meetings law by discussing topics in a closed-door meeting that should have been open to the public.
Friends of Strasburg Fire, a nonprofit made of community members, volunteer firefighters and others who want to promote the district’s safe and ethical operation, claimed that the fire district board violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law (COML) at an August meeting. The purpose of COML is to ensure public access to meetings where public business is being discussed and to allow residents to educate themselves on the happenings of their community.
The Strasburg Fire Protection District provides emergency services to portions of Adams and Arapahoe Counties east of Denver. It is governed by a board of directors, consisting of five people elected into the position by the residents of Strasburg.
According to the lawsuit, Friends of Strasburg Fire claimed that on Aug. 15, the fire district board held a closed-door executive session that was in violation of the state’s sunshine law, which requires all meetings to be open to the public if public business is being discussed between two or more members of any state public body. COML is part of the state’s sunshine law. Friends of Strasburg Fire has asked for a recording of that meeting to be released to the public.
At the meeting, the fire district’s board of directors met with the public to discuss the topic of vehicle maintenance. The board listened to public comment, as well as the fire chief’s input, during an open portion of the meeting.
The topic of vehicle maintenance came to light in August after multiple emergency vehicles broke down, including an ambulance with children inside, and questions arose about where the vehicles were being repaired. Another engine had a broken pump and a brush engine was out of service for six weeks, Brad Jones, Friends of Strasburg Fire's executive director, told Denver7 in August. Jones also serves as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in the district.
The board had told the fire chief that the fire vehicles could only be serviced at the board president’s auto shop. Don Sherer, the elected board president, owns and operates Sherer Auto Parts in Bennett. Jones said it is not an emergency vehicle maintenance shop and has no certification to work on the specialty vehicles. When Denver7 visited the shop, Sherer said the entire issue was a “big fuss” and it had “all been taken care of” because the fire district was going to start to take the vehicles to another location for repairs. Through open records requests, Friends of Strasburg Fire found documentation that Sherer received of tens of thousands of dollars for substandard work, according to the lawsuit.
During the Aug. 15 meeting, the board didn’t adopt any new policies, but the fire district announced it would meet in an executive session to talk with legal officials about contracts and employment manual interpretations, according to the lawsuit. State law has established steps that must be taken for any public body to enter into one of these closed-door meetings.
However, the Friends of Strasburg Fire complaint alleges that during that executive session, the board “discussed matters not properly subject of an executive session,” and more specifically, they “engaged in substantial discussion of matters not enumerated by the COML for exemption and proceeded to formulate and adopt a public policy on the topic of district vehicle maintenance during the executive session.”
Friends of Strasburg Fire said the fire district violated COML in connection to that meeting in three ways:
· The board didn’t vote to reach a two-thirds affirmative agreement to enter an executive session
· The attorney’s announcement as to why the board could enter the executive session did not satisfy COML requirements
· Board members’ actions after the executive session suggested that the discussion in the private meeting had strayed outside of the authorized topics
The complaint also claims that the board used the closed-door session to talk about public outcry regarding the alleged conflict of interest between Sherer’s maintenance services and the fire district.
Jones said the public has the right to expect that the fire district board would conduct itself in an honest matter.
"The fire district board has habitually violated state law by entering into executive sessions with insufficient justification and to discuss matters that legally must be debated in public view,” Jones said.
He said the board may operate in a small town, but that doesn’t mean it’s excluded from state law.
"The citizens of the district deserve better from their elected officials, and we hope this lawsuit is a catalyst for positive change at Strasburg Fire,” he said.
The president of the board and the attorney for the fire protection district did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Read the full lawsuit below: