CMC trustee faces censure over letters to editor
July 15, 2016
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Colorado Mountain College trustees last month considered censuring a colleague over letters the board member wrote to western Colorado newspapers about college spending.
The censure motion was tabled — but could be brought back — only after Trustee Mary Ellen Denomy, of Battlement Mesa, agreed to not write any more letters to the editor before a board retreat at the end of August.
Trustee Patricia Theobald, of Breckenridge, moved to censure Denomy "for repeated, serious violations of the responsibilities of (a) trustee of Colorado Mountain College, for engaging in a public campaign through newspapers across the district to mislead the readers by publishing the minority opinion (and) for expressing condemnation of the board and disapproval of properly approved actions by the board."
"This conduct can only be intended to cause overwhelming damage to the college," Theobald's motion said.
What is Censure
Censure is a formal expression of disapproval that carries no further penalty. CMC trustees represent each of the six Western Slope counties served by the college — Garfield, with two representatives; Summit, Lake, Routt, Eagle and Pitkin.
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The CMC board, an elected, unpaid body, adopted a policy in February 2014 — Denomy told the Post Independent she cast the sole dissenting vote — under which "each board member supports the final determination of the board concerning any particular matter, regardless of the member's personal position concerning such matter."
Further, the policy says, "The board president is the only spokesperson for the Board of Trustees."
Board President Glenn Davis, of Avon, said the policy is not meant to stifle anyone, but to improve the effectiveness of the board and its support for the college.
He said he was inclined to vote for censure and pressed Denomy for the pledge to not write more letters because he believes "Mary Ellen is doing damage to this governing body's ability to honor its responsibilities and fiduciary obligations to the institution by not choosing our meeting sessions to deliberate, argue, debate and instead … choosing to use letters to the editor to represent her position."
He said that while the board policies on trustees speaking outside meetings may be unusual for an elected body, they are common for nonprofit and private sector boards.
First Amendment rights
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the policy and move to censure Denomy sounded like a muzzling of her First Amendment rights.
"I don't know how they can legally keep that trustee from speaking out," he said, expressing doubt that the policy would withstand a legal challenge.
Denomy, an accountant and self-described fiscal conservative whose second term on the board ends in November 2017, wrote a letter in May opposing a transfer of tax money to the nonprofit CMC Foundation, whose board Theobald formerly led; and a second letter in June saying she would vote against a raise, bonus and contract extension for college President and CEO Carrie Hauser.
Denomy also said in her second letter she would vote against the overall budget for 2016-'17 because she was opposed to "raising tuition on some of our most-deserving students and increasing spending for projects that do not directly enhance the education of our students."
In the May letter, she wrote:
"Seeing that CMC is facing financial restrictions, funding the foundation through taxpayer and tuition dollars is not in the best interest of CMC students and our communities. Therefore, I am going to vote to not fund the foundation this year for its annual payment of $1 million.
"I am hoping that you, as taxpayers of CMC's mill levy that provides 68 percent of CMC's budget, voice your opinion to CMC. Let them know that the nonprofit CMC Foundation needs to seek donations to fund their wonderful organization through philanthropic donors and not use taxpayer and tuition money."
Denomy told the Post Independent that board minutes don't fully capture the reasons trustees vote one way or another and "it's important for constituents to understand why I was voting the way I was voting."
"They're mad at me because they don't like differing opinions," she said of trustees supporting her censure.
Theobald, in an email to the Post Independent, said Denomy "was given ample time to express her opinions regarding tuition increases at the preliminary budget hearing in May."
"The board did request that Dr. Hauser reconsider the tuition increase for ESL and GED classes and adopted the suggestion by our president to establish a financial assistance fund to help 'some of our most-deserving students,'" Theobald added.
Theobald said the first letter gave a false impression of college finances and could have harmed the foundation's ability to raise private donations.
Trustee Kathy Goudy, of Carbondale, said nothing in the board's policies prevent a trustee from talking about an issue before a final vote.
She said the board is seeking to behave like a private body, and "I think the censure motion is exactly that." She said she has combed through the board policies and, as a lawyer, cannot find a basis for censure — or a procedure.
Trustees, she and Denomy said, learned of the censure effort the afternoon before the June 24 meeting, and she still hasn't seen the full motion. "It was a sandbagging," Goudy said.
"Disagreeing with what the administration wants is considered disrespectful, and I disagree with that," she said. "We need to have robust discussions" to represent taxpayer interests.
Denomy is "always very civil, always very polite" at meetings, Goudy added.
The college trustees meet Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 for a retreat in Steamboat Springs. At the June meeting when the censure motion was tabled, trustees agreed to discuss the issues at the retreat.
Richard Gonzales, CMC's general counsel, said the college is working on a report on its governance with the help of the Colorado attorney general's office.
"The attorney general's office will help clarify how board members remain in compliance with their existing policy and legal obligations while expressing opinions on college matters," he said in an email. That report is expected as soon as next week.
Davis, noting that he believes "all of the trustees care a lot about the college," said "the outcome of the retreat discussion will guide" whether the censure motion is revived.
Denomy said she has asked for time at the trustees' retreat to defend herself.
"I firmly believe I haven't violated the spirit" of board policy, she said, noting that her letters came before final trustee votes.