Dail Barbour, a volunteer library board member who county commissioners removed behind closed doors Nov. 9, has retained a lawyer, alleged the commission broke the law and requested her position back.
Representing her is Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, who specializes in protecting public access to government. He has represented the Jackson Hole News&Guide in cases regarding open meetings and public records.
In a Dec. 11 letter to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, Moats said the problem is the manner in which elected officials dismissed Barbour.
“The Commission violated the Public Meetings Act by failing to give Ms. Barbour notice of any proposed executive session to discuss her continued service on the library board, and the opportunity to request a public meeting,” Moats wrote. “Ms. Barbour respectfully requests that the Commission recognize its error without the intervention of the courts, and officially rescind her dismissal.”
Legal action may be on the table if the county does not respond by noon Wednesday, but Barbour told the News&Guide she would rather not resort to the courts.
“But on the other hand,” she said, “I feel that the issue is important enough in terms of due process and volunteer rights and transparency on the part of the commission. I think all of that is important enough.
“I’m still hoping for some conversation at a minimum from the commission,” she said, “but I’m also holding onto my other options.”
Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker said Monday that she did not know whether the county would respond to Barbour and Moats by the Wednesday deadline.
Teton County Attorney Erin Weisman and Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery did not respond to requests for comment on the issue by press time.
Commissioners met in a closed executive session at the end of Tuesday’s voucher meeting to discuss “litigation.” Commissioners are required to take any vote in public on actions discussed during closed-door executive sessions. No such action was taken Tuesday afternoon when commissioners emerged from executive session.
Moats’ letter claims that Barbour “was summarily dismissed from the Teton County Library Board after two other library board members were allowed to complain about her in secret.”
Although county commissioners have declined to discuss publicly why Barbour was removed, Commissioner Greg Epstein responded in some detail to one constituent’s email, writing that Barbour was removed at the request of “a majority of the current library board,” which alleged she was creating a toxic environment.
Barbour, a former county commissioner who was the only member of the library board with in-library experience, said that was untrue — and that proof was on the record, though she didn’t think anyone had examined it before her removal.
Moats contends that the County Commission violated Barbour’s right to due process. But, in an earlier, tersely worded letter, Gingery contended that Barbour has no due process rights because she was a volunteer board member.
Moats argued that Barbour does have due process rights because of Wyoming statute 18-7-103, which gives commissioners the authority to remove a member of a library board “only for cause, specifically misconduct or neglect of duty.”
The county’s “position ignores that the obvious purpose of the statute giving library board members ‘for-cause’ dismissal rights is to ensure the independence of public libraries,” he wrote. “Libraries have long been seen as repositories of information that should not be influenced by politics. Such statutes are commonly found by courts to establish a property right in a position.”
Moats acknowledged the disagreement between the two sides on due process and moved on, arguing that the commission’s action violated the Wyoming Public Meetings Act because of what he referred to as a “personnel exemption.”
Wyoming statute 16-4-405(a)(ii) gives governing bodies like the County Commission the right to hold an executive session to consider dismissing a public officer unless that person “requests a public hearing.” But Moats argued, notice has to be given in order for that law to apply.
“This right is meaningless unless the person knows that complaints against her are going to be heard and her dismissal is going to be considered,” Moats wrote. “Ms. Barbour was given no notice that her service on the library board was to be the subject of an executive session.”
Because of that, he argued the County Commission had broken the law, citing a ruling from former Ninth District Judge Nancy Guthrie that asserted that executive sessions held for personnel matters are closed to the public “to protect the privacy interests of the employee.”
“It would be contrary to the statutes to use the executive session exception to deny the employee information from the employee’s own case,” Guthrie wrote.
Because the Public Meetings Act renders action taken at meetings that do not comply with the letter of the law “null and void,” Moats concluded by arguing that Barbour’s dismissal was “null and void” and requesting that she be reinstated.
He also suggested that Barbour would be ready to defend herself publicly if need be.
If the County Commission “finds it prudent,” Moats wrote, Barbour would be open to having “the two library board members” return to “make their complaints public.”
“Ms. Barbour is certainly ready to defend herself in that case,” Moats wrote.
The letter did not name the library board members in question, and the county has not responded to the News&Guide’s requests to disclose who was present in the executive session at which Barbour was removed.
Macker declined to comment on whether the commission was considering Barbour’s reinstatement or a subsequent public hearing.
For now, the County Commission continues to advertise for Barbour’s former seat on the library board. The application deadline is 9 a.m. Dec. 23.
Asked whether she thought people would be interested in the position after the County Commission voted 4-1 to remove its former occupant, Macker demurred.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You can’t fill it if you don’t advertise it.”