CHEYENNE — A group of Laramie County residents, including a state lawmaker from Cheyenne, is suing Laramie County School District 1, its Board of Trustees, the superintendent and assistant superintendent for allegedly holding school board meetings that were not compliant with state public meetings law.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Laramie County District Court, claims Rep. Clarence Styvar of Cheyenne, Kathleen Bain, Russell Bain, Jason Hoover, Mike Lackey and Jacqueline Oceanak were denied access to Laramie County School District 1 board meetings in April and May when they tried to attend in person.
The school district is “actively conducting illegal public meetings that are not compliant with the Wyoming Public Meetings Act, and this is a continuing pattern of conduct that is harming the Defendants and those similarly situated,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit asks the court to order the school district to comply with the state’s public meetings law, award civil damages to plaintiffs or both. It also asks for “an award of attorney fees due to the willful and damaging nature of excluding the public from public meetings when they have disabilities, are physically impaired, or are without internet or computer capabilities,” and a judgement that meetings held since March 2019 were illegal and void, along with any decisions made at those meetings, under state statute.
The suit claims the first “illegal meeting” was held in March 2019. Cheyenne attorney Cassie Craven, who is representing the suit’s plaintiffs, clarified that a district official told one of the plaintiffs that meetings had been conducted in this manner since March 2019, though the coronavirus pandemic, which caused many meetings to be held virtually, began in March 2020.
“It very well could happen that that might get corrected during the course of discovery,” she said.
Craven sent the following statement to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle via email:
“The Public Meetings Act exists to allow anyone, regardless of privilege, age or disability, to attend a meeting regarding the operations of their own government. Government must act in a fishbowl and must listen to citizens. This lawsuit demonstrates the differences in all the plaintiffs, yet their similar harms at the hands of this school district. The district’s blatant misinterpretation of the law and their disregard for those with disabilities must not go unchecked. Threatening a citizen with a trespass citation when they simply want a voice in their own government cannot stand. We have a voice and inherent power, the government works for us, and they must listen.”
Superintendent Boyd Brown and district spokesperson Mary Quast were not immediately available for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Hoover said he requested and was denied access to school board meetings on April 19 and May 17 after he exchanged emails with district officials, in which he expressed concern about the public being required to attend virtually.
“... (Y)our web page advises the public that ‘Meetings are virtual for the public and live for LCSD1 trustees and staff.’ This is very concerning to me, so I ask you for clarification on your apparent decision,” Hoover’s email read, in part, according to court documents.
Hoover then cited a Wyoming statute on public meetings, which says: “A member of the public is not required, as a condition of attendance at any meeting, to register his name, to supply information, to complete a questionnaire, or fulfill any other condition precedent to his attendance. A person seeking recognition at the meeting may be required to give his name and affiliation.”
The lawsuit then claims the Zoom format is in violation of this statute because it requires meeting attendees to register personal details.
In an email to the district, Hoover said a member of the public would need to have “internet access, a device and install privately owned software on the device that registers one’s device information, among other personal information.”
“Further, the ‘attendance’ of the public would then be subject to the control of whoever is the moderator of the meeting, and the public (user) would not have the benefit of connecting with others of the public before, during or after the meeting in a contemporaneous fashion,” he continued.
Rep. Styvar said he was also denied access to the April 19 meeting when he attempted to attend in person. In the lawsuit, he claims to have been threatened with a trespassing citation by an off-duty Cheyenne police officer, who was working as a contracted security guard for the district, when Styvar asked about the legality of being denied entry to the meeting.
According to a witness, the off-duty officer said his job was to prevent “disturbances or trespassing issues,” and advised citizens to deal with the issue “through civil litigation.”
Kathleen Bain said she requested and was denied access to the May 17 meeting “despite calling ahead of time to request reasonable accommodations because she is both blind and hearing impaired.”
The morning of the meeting, Bain contacted the superintendent’s office to ask how she could ask questions during the meeting. She was told “There isn’t enough room,” and the superintendent’s office employee explained that the public could attend the meeting via Zoom, according to court documents.
Bain explained that attending virtually would not accommodate her needs, so the employee said she could “ask about a ‘special request’” that would allow Bain to attend in person near the end of the meeting when most people had left the meeting space. Even so, “no reasonable accommodation was ever made,” and Bain was turned away when she went to the meeting in person, she said. She claims staff and school leadership walked by her and ignored her as they entered the meeting, despite being identifiable as a blind woman with sunglasses and a walking stick, the lawsuit says.
The meeting was held in a small room off Storey Gymnasium, a location that “was not appropriate or conducive for the social distancing claimed to be so important by the district,” according to court documents.
On April 19, Russell Bain and nine other people were allegedly denied access to a school board meeting by a uniformed police officer, who told them the public could access the meeting via Zoom. On this day, he claims to have witnessed part of the exchange between Styvar and the officer. Russell said he was also denied access on May 17 with his wife, Kathleen.
Oceanak said she was denied access to the May 3 Board of Trustees meeting after she was told by Superintendent Brown that it was not an “open meeting,” according to the suit. She also said she was denied access to the board’s May 17 meeting.
Lackey said he was denied access to the April 19 meeting after being told the meeting was “at capacity” for in-person attendance, which he was told was limited at 50 people pursuant to Health Order No. 1, which applied to educational institutions.
Regardless, the lawsuit claims: “Health orders, even if accurately interpreted, do not circumvent state statute.”