They still don’t get it with e-mail litigation
Elsewhere on this page you will find a guest column from John Brendza, superintendent of schools, written in response to my column discussing the unfortunate e-mail court suit between Mike Cacioppo and the district. John’s letter brings to mind another of my homilies, which goes this way: The view of the valley is different depending on which mountain you are viewing it from.
In most respects, John and I agree on the facts of the dispute between Cacioppo and the school district. But it is pretty clear that we continue to have some disagreements on the picture of the valley the facts paint.
Let’s look at the items we agree upon:
n The situation was caused by a misguided and probably illegal attempt by at least one person at the school district to start an advertising boycott targeted at Cacioppo’s newspaper.
n The school administration did try to put a stop to the boycott and made some effort to provide records for Cacioppo’s review.
n Mel Preusser, former superintendent of schools, did apologize to Cacioppo.
n Cacioppo forced the school district to search records more completely.
n Cacioppo refused to pay for the cost of recovering deleted records.
n Cacioppo did not and does not believe the district is giving him full access to school e-mails.
n The district has incurred over $50,000 in hard legal fees (their own and Cacioppo’s) and a significant amount in wasted staff time and other costs.
Now the disagreement starts. John’s column claims that Cacioppo’s refusal to pay the record recovery costs caused the “unnecessary litigation that followed.” The courts have already ruled that Cacioppo was correct in this matter. According to the court, the district was in the wrong by trying to make Cacioppo pay for this records access.
The fact that Cacioppo won the suit proves that it was necessary. It was necessary for him to protect his own rights to the information. Even more important, it was necessary to protect all of our rights, meaning you and me, to similar governmental information if we need to obtain it. It is the law. Protecting the access granted by the law is necessary. In fact, protecting this right to access is an essential part of our democratic process.
The “unnecessary” part of the process started when the school board started to take Cacioppo’s rants personally. This mindset pushed them into making a very misguided decision to teach Cacioppo a lesson. At the end of the day, it was the board that was taught the lesson.
The fact that the board went down a wrong road does not mean that they are poor board members or that they are not good people. To the contrary, this board is composed of excellent individuals who give their time to an often thankless cause. On balance they are one of the most effective school boards I have seen.
Unfortunately, it seems that they allowed the constant badgering they get from Cacioppo to push them into an ill-conceived decision. It was the type of mistake that many of us make in confrontational situations. None of us are immune to this type of mistake. Every time I have reacted in this manner, I have ended up regretting it. But heck, we all do it. So let’s get on with the process of fixing the situation.
So where should the district go from here? As predicted in my earlier column, Cacioppo still does not believe the district has given him all of the information available. So give it to him.
The district should set up a computer that contains all e-mails that are appropriate for the public to see. The only messages that should not be on the computer would be those that are clearly and narrowly defined in Colorado’s open records laws. Make the computer conveniently accessible to any person, including Cacioppo, who wants to look at the messages. Don’t charge for the access; the law and a local judge say that you are not allowed to do so.
Then let Cacioppo knock himself out.
With free and open access, you have taken the bullets out of his gun. If he goes to court again, he will probably lose.
An open-minded civics teacher would probably have to grade the district’s performance up to this time as an F. That is F as in Failure to understand the law and as in Forgetting that Cacioppo is a citizen with open record rights even if he is a pain.
While the district’s performance has improved in the last week or so, the teacher would probably still give them a D. That’s D as in being Dumb enough to continue to put the blame on Cacioppo. Put in the computer with free and open access and the grade might go to A, as in Acceptable. Too bad the grading system doesn’t go to L because this whole dust-up is a Ludicrous waste of time and money.
Steve Pope is the publisher of the Vail Daily.