Judge: Casper City Council Must Admit It Violated Public Meetings Act
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Casper City Council must admit it gave direction or guidance to the former city manager during an executive session last year, meaning it took an action prohibited under the Wyoming Public Meetings Act, a judge ruled Friday.
"What the judge ruled will enable us to move forward," said Bruce Moats, attorney for Debra Cheatham who sued the city in June.
The dispute between Cheatham and the city had its origins two years ago when work on a retention pond at the Hogadon Ski Area lead to water entering other ponds and depositing silt in them.
Former City Manager John Patterson denied the silting was the city's fault. But city crews later repaired one pond outside city limits, and cut a check for $1,200 to another landowner for repairs.
Last year, Cheatham asked council to investigate whether Patterson illegally used city resources.
Council held an executive session on April 14 about the matter. Local governments can hold executive sessions for personnel, legal and real estate matters, but they cannot make collective decisions. Those decisions must be made in public according to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act.
Later, former Mayor Charlie Powell said the matter was closed.
However, some council members said decisions were made in that executive session.
Cheatham sued the city in June. The last filing in the case was in November, which set the date for Friday's hearing.
Moats asked Natrona County District Court Judge Daniel Forgey to give a straight yes or no answer about whether council took an action. The details and content of that action would be dealt with later, Moats said.
But Judith Studer, who was hired as outside counsel to represent the city, said city council has provided Moats and Cheatham the minutes of the April 14 meeting. The city manager has the authority to spend up to $20,000 at his discretion, and there was no action taken, Studer said.
Any further response would be a breach of confidentiality about personnel matters -- city council as employer and the city manager as employee -- involving Patterson, she said.
Forgey, however, agreed with Moats.
"Without being able to ask those sorts of questions it makes it almost impossible for someone to try and pursue a case if they think there's been any illegal executive session held," Moats said after the hearing. "The court required the city to answer our request for admission, and that request for admission was basically 'did they give any guidance or direction to the city manager.'"
After the hearing, Studer said she needs to discuss Forgey's decision with city council.
The judge's decision could cause problems for executive sessions held by council, she said. "It has the potential for overreaching effects."