STRASBURG, Colorado — Currently fighting a court battle over video showing the Strasburg Fire Protection District’s board going into executive session without a vote in August as required by state law, the board voted Thursday to ban all methods of recording their meetings.
In a unanimous vote, the five board members adopted a new policy they say is meant to improve the decorum of their meetings. It includes a provision banning photographs, video and audio recordings of the public meetings.
“We’re suspending the meeting until cameras are removed from the meeting,” board president Don Sherer said, looking at Brad Jones, a former Strasburg volunteer firefighter who was terminated last month, less than 24 hours after he appeared on 9NEWS criticizing a conflict of interest involving Sherer.
Months ago, Jones formed a group called “Friends of Strasburg Fire” calling for integrity on the fire board. He attends each board meeting, filming them and posting the full video to the group’s Facebook page.
Moments after the vote, board members decided to call the sheriff to have Jones removed from their meeting. Bret Devlin, a board member and Sherer’s son-in-law, is seen on video going into the district’s back office and making a phone call.
“We’re trying to conduct a meeting and we have a person from the public being disruptive,” Devlin tells a 911 dispatcher in a call obtained Friday by 9NEWS through an open records request.
“We actually made some rules that you’re not allowed to have cameras in our meeting and he’s up here and not taking his camera out of our meeting,” Devlin told the dispatcher in the call.
Back at the board table, members remain silent. Nearly seven minutes after the vote, after Devlin has returned to the table after calling the police, the board’s legal counsel, Russ Dykstra makes an official request that Jones turn off his camera.
“If you refuse, the district can and will press charges against you, is that clear?” Dykstra tells Jones.
“I believe I have a constitutional and legal right to be here,” Jones replies. “No thanks.”
The board then continues its meeting, passing a consent agenda, then adjourning.
“This is a board that has been getting scrutinized because of the way it conducts public business and they’re not welcoming that scrutiny,” said Jeff Roberts, Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Roberts said while there is nothing directly addressing video and audio recording of public meetings in Colorado’s open meetings law, he believes the Strasburg board is making a mistake with this policy.
“Having a blanket ban like this seems pretty unreasonable,” Roberts said.
“It’s really only until someone used that video to point out what appeared to be them doing something contrary to what the sunshine law says that they’re now saying we don’t want any more cameras in the room,” he said, “What does that tell you?”
“It tells you they don’t want the public, except for those very few people who come to their meetings, watching how they conduct business.”
9NEWS had several questions about the board’s new policy, including how it might impact the working press, but the board’s legal counsel has not responded to requests for comment and clarification of the policy.
On Friday, the board released this statement to 9NEWS about the policy:
The policy adopted by the Strasburg Fire Protection District (attached) was put in place in response to intimidation and harassment of members of the public attending board meetings and disruption, interruption and interference of board proceedings occasioned by individuals moving around within a very small meeting room for the sole purpose of ensuring their presence on such recordings and attempting to engage in arguments with other members of the public for recording and publicity purposes. Security is of concern due to individuals walking around and behind board members during the meetings in order to appear on recordings. At a recent meeting these activities culminated in heated arguments and near violence amongst members of the public on District property. The board has not restricted meeting recording up to this point; however, recent events forced the District to take measures to ensure that attendees are free from intimidation, harassment and disorderly conduct, its meetings can be held in an orderly manner and without interference with the rights of others. The policy was developed at the request of individual board members after the August board meeting at which these disruptions occurred, with the resulting policy being presented for consideration by the board at the meeting on Oct. 17, 2019, at which again, there was disruption of the meeting and interference with the conduct of business by individuals moving around the meeting room for the sole purpose of recording and refusing to comply with lawful requests further substantiating the basis for the policy. The policy included additional matters to address inappropriate behaviors and the policy will continue to be refined to seek a balance of time, place and manner appropriateness of restrictions on recording in order to facilitate the orderly conduct of District business.
Jones’ attorney told 9NEWS he is considering options including asking a judge for an injunction for the policy.
Jones lost his job as a volunteer firefighter less than a day after he spoke to 9NEWS about vehicle maintenance issues within the district. Don Sherer, the board’s elected president, is also an auto mechanic who holds the contract to maintain the district’s vehicles.
Sherer told 9NEWS he hasn’t serviced the district’s vehicles much this year and vowed to not bid for the contract again because of the increased scrutiny. He said he always felt the contract was a community service, not a money-making opportunity.
Jones’ group, Friends of Strasburg Fire, is suing the district over what it calls an open meetings law violation. When the board went into executive session at its meeting on August 15, video shows the board didn’t vote, which is required by state law.
After the lawsuit was filed at the next month’s meeting, the board voted to ratify its decision on the executive session. In a court filing, attorneys for Strasburg Fire argued that since no one verbally objected to the session, it was considered a vote.
A judge hasn’t ruled on the case yet.
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