Jefferson County School Board President Ken Witt, the target of a high-profile recall campaign, announced Thursday he is asking the state’s Independent Ethics Commission to weigh in on recall organizers’ claim that he violated state transparency laws.
“I’m simply calling their bluff,” Witt said at a news conference.
Making such a determination, however, is not the typical role of the commission, said Amy DeVan, the commission’s executive director. Neither open meeting violations nor actions taken by unpaid elected officials are within its jurisdiction.
“The IEC doesn’t have authority to do what the legislature gave the court the ability to do regarding opening meeting laws,” DeVan said.
Witt’s move is the latest twist in a recall campaign that has drawn considerable outside interest and no shortage of political maneuvering to the suburban school district in a bellwether Colorado county.
Witt, at his press conference, said he’d let the commission decide what it has jurisdiction over.
“Yes, this is ridiculous, an elected official filing an ethics complaint himself,” Witt said. “But sadly, this empty ridiculous accusation requires an equally ridiculous action to shed light on the truth.”
The commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Nov. 6, three days after the election.
While the commission can ask for an earlier meeting, it isn’t typical, DeVan said.
Another wrinkle to Witt’s request is that typically an elected official or state employee seeks an advisory opinion about an action they’re contemplating, said Peg Perl of the Colorado Ethics Watch.
“You can only ask for an advisory opinion about something you haven’t done yet,” she said. “They really can’t do an advisory opinion about past conduct.”
The transparency violation claim is cited on the recall question that made the ballot this November. The most specific claim cited by recall proponents: that the hiring of board attorney Brad Miller was a done deal before a public vote was taken.
Miller’s position and how he got it has been a longstanding sore point among opponents of Witt and two other conservative school board majority members who swept into office in November 2013. In the past, the board hired lawyers on a case-by-case basis. Miller’s hiring represented the first time the school board had a lawyer on retainer.
Witt said that of all the recall claims, the transparency violation allegation disturbs him most.
“Their assertions don’t pass the credibility test,” he said.
Witt emphasized he was asking for the commission’s opinion regarding the claim against him, not against his two colleagues also targeted in the recall — John Newkirk and Julie Williams.
The state’s open meeting law allows board members to discuss the school district’s business one-on-one.
However, it forbids three elected officials or a quorum, whichever is greater, from meeting without proper notification.
Further, transparency activists and case law from around the country suggest it is illegal for elected officials, like school board members, to work around the law by coordinating “spoke” meetings.
A “spoke” meeting, also known as a “walking quorum,” is when one elected official meets with other members of the board on the same subject to coordinate a vote or policy stance.
Recall organizers claim that Witt, Williams and Newkirk have wasted taxpayer dollars, disrespected the community and met illegally in private. The recall targets counter that they’ve authorized building a school without increasing the district’s debt, given teachers raises, and opened access to school board meetings by streaming them live on the Internet.