Brunner resigns amid turmoil on Paonia board
By Kami Collins
Published Thursday, June 22, 2017 8:45 am
Photo by Kami Collins Paonia trustees Bill Bear and Dave Bradford listen on as trustees Bill Brunner and Suzanne Watson accuse them of verbal threats and harassment. Brunner asked that the two be included in the investigation against him; the board voted
After 45 minutes of arguing motions, amendments, he-said-she-said and a couple of temper tantrums (at one point Mayor Charles Stewart had to give the board an impromptu etiquette lesson on how to decorously address one another), the Paonia board of trustees came to a decision regarding Trustee Bill Brunner, and whether or not he violated Colorado's open meeting laws, town ordinances or the board's Standards of Conduct. The big decision of the evening was to postpone a motion of sanctions against Trustee Brunner.
A special meeting was set for earlier this week, where the board heard from the town attorney about his opinion of the charges. Sanctions were also expected to be made at that meeting. In the meantime, Trustee Brunner sent a letter of resignation to town administrator Ken Knight the day after the meeting. The letter read, in its entirety, "To Whom it May Concern, This is my resignation from the Paonia Board of Trustees, effective immediately."
During the regular meeting, however, the discourse started almost immediately. As Mayor Stewart began reading a motion to postpone the meeting to sanction Trustee Brunner, as well as to postpone the release of the town attorney's memo regarding Brunner's actions, Trustee Brunner interrupted the mayor and called for him to step down from this portion of the meeting. As soon as he called, "Point of order," there was an audible sigh in the room.
"My now public e-mails name you specifically as an elected official involved in actions beyond your office. You must pass the gavel to someone else," he told the mayor.
"There is nothing that prevents me from chairing this meeting," Mayor Stewart replied. He did, however, call for a second to Brunner's motion that he step down; that motion died for lack of a second, and Mayor Stewart forged ahead.
The issue up for discussion was whether Brunner violated Colorado's open meeting laws, town ordinances or the board's Standards of Conduct when he released a batch of e-mails to local media, and submitted a letter to the editor in the Delta County Independent and spoke with a reporter on KVNF discussing his allegations. Brunner has alleged that a small portion of the board made decisions without the knowledge or input from the full board, and that the board has on several occasions violated Open Meetings Laws when they discussed non-privileged information in executive sessions.
The board alleges that Brunner's actions of releasing the e-mails and speaking publicly about the issues violate the Open Meetings Laws - that the information he gave to the public was rightfully privileged, and that he did so without the approval of the full board, further violating the board's Standards of Conduct.
"This is a very serious matter which this board must address," Mayor Stewart said. He intended to postpone the release of the memo, which dealt specifically with the May 9, 2017, release of e-mails by Brunner, and the motion for sanctions to another evening, to allow for a full discussion. The board's heavy agenda on June 13 would limit the amount of time the board was able to give all business. Additionally, the town attorney, Bo Nerlin, was unable to be there that evening.
Trustee Suzanne Watson asked to have the attorney's memo released that evening. "If this is indeed a serious matter, I'd like the chance to read it," she said.
Trustee Brunner agreed. "If I'm going to be charged with something based on what's in that memo, I should have the chance to review it," he said. The board voted to release the memo that evening, but postpone the meeting until June 20.
Next up was a directive to the town attorney to review the April 11, 2017 executive session, during which the e-mails were discussed, as well as to review Brunner's editorial in the DCI and his KVNF interview, and prepare a written opinion for the board to use at the June 20th meeting.
During discussion, Mayor Stewart said Brunner made numerous false statements on the radio and in the newspaper, and disclosed items that were protected by attorney-client privilege. "He puts the rest of the board at a several disadvantage because we cannot correct the record without violating our obligation to not reveal confidential information," the mayor said.
"You are stating your opinions as if they are fact," Brunner replied. He explained that Open Meetings Laws allow for six narrowly-defined reasons why a governing board can go into executive session. None of the reasons include a sanctuary where a board can have a frank discussion of what they don't want to say in public, he explained. "Things happened in that executive session that were beyond the scope of privilege," he said.
Brunner also asked that if the town attorney was going to be directed to investigate his actions, that the actions of Mayor Stewart and Trustees Bill Bear and Dave Bradford also be investigated. Brunner explained that Bradford made verbal threats to Trustee Watson; that Trustee Bear and Mayor Stewart both verbally threatened him, as well as displayed extreme bias against him. He made his request as a formal motion; that motion was seconded.
When Mayor Stewart called for discussion on the amendment, Trustee Bradford spoke up. The board has had 23 executive sessions in the past year, "and not once has Trustee Brunner moved to not attend them, nor has he expressed any problem of what was discussed at these meetings. I believe having the town attorney review the items in the original motion would be to the benefit to all," he said.
Mayor Stewart explained how the matter of the alleged threat against Watson had already been dealt with, and therefore could not be added to the motion. "Ms. Watson made a statement specifically regarding conduct towards her [at the April 11 executive session]. There was no motion made to impose sanctions or to take any other action whatsoever," the mayor said. "At the next meeting, when it was raised again, I ruled that it was out of order. That was appealed to the full board, and the board sustained that objection. This issue is now moot."
"I'm sorry I don't have your expertise or finesse in these matters, Mr. Stewart," Trustee Watson replied. "But I specifically asked for that to be noted in the record. We had just passed the code of conduct, and I wanted it to be noted that people were already violating it, and it was done in the secrecy of an executive session, and I didn't think that was appropriate."
"My ruling is that the motion Mr. Brunner made is out of order for the reasons I've already stated. Procedurally, that issue has been addressed," the mayor replied.
Brunner used that argument against the mayor. "It seems to me to go back and consider only certain issues is a violation of your ruling," he said. "I told you that I had a statement that was going out to the public. I offered to read it to you, and you declined my offer. And I think by that refusal, you let pass the moment for this action [the consideration of sanctions against Brunner]. I think this is out of order, by your own rule." Brunner reiterated his amendment: to add Trustees Bradford and Bear and Mayor Stewart to the investigation.
"This motion is defamatory, and is potentially in violation of our code of conduct," the mayor replied. "The bottom line is that I rule this out of order." He did go ahead and allow trustees to vote on whether or not to uphold his earlier ruling, that the issue had already been dealt with. The motion passed, with Brunner and Watson voting 'nay,' which meant Brunner's amendment to have Stewart, Bear and Bradford added to the investigation died - it was out of order.
After that, it was time to vote on the original motion, to direct the town attorney to investigate Brunner's actions at the April 11 executive session. Before the vote, Trustee Bear said, "In light of discussion here tonight, I would like to add this discussion tonight to the review." That amendment carried, so everything Brunner discussed at the June 13 meeting will also be reviewed by the attorney to see if he has violated the code of conduct or any town rules or ordinances.
The 35-page memo from the attorney reads in part, "Sending the e-mails to the trustees by Trustee Brunner was likely not a violation of the OML [Open Meetings Law], the Town Code, or the Trustees Standard of Conduct. Disclosure of the e-mails to the press without the consent of the Board of Trustees may be a violation of the Trustees Standards of Conduct for two reasons: they are unilateral disclosures of information otherwise protected by attorney client privilege or subject to protection as a personnel matter; and these e-mails contain language that can be viewed as disparaging." The full document is available at the town hall for review by the public.
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