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A Mixed Pedigree

Winter Park's blend of public and private interests raises control issues.

"It was a way to get around the stonewalling," explains Mares.

The WPRA objected to the request, and the dispute wound up in a Hot Sulphur Springs courtroom. Last month, Grand County District Judge Richard Doucette dismissed Mares's request, ruling that the auditor had no legal standing to file suit. In a decision that startled many legal observers, Doucette said the auditor is not a "natural person," the term the law uses to describe someone seeking documents.

Mares now intends to ask the Colorado Legislature to take up the matter, maintaining that the judge turned the law on its head by singling out public officials as exempt from CORA.

"If any citizen can get information to line a bird cage, why can't I?" asks Mares.

Privately, some on the WPRA board say that Mares -- a potential mayoral candidate -- is pursuing the issue to get his name in the papers. "This is all about politics," says one.

Further muddying the waters is the presence on the WPRA board of William Dean Singleton, owner of the Denver Post. Singleton has been on the board since 1997 and has substantial real-estate holdings in the Fraser Valley. He reportedly told the board that his paper would crusade against Denver selling Winter Park, and he intervened when Mares retained local attorney Thomas Kelley to represent him in the open-records case.

Kelley is one of the best-known First Amendment attorneys in Denver and has represented the Denver Post in numerous trials over several decades. After Singleton told Kelley it would be a conflict of interest for him to represent the auditor and also work for the Post, Kelley withdrew as the Mares's counsel. (Singleton did not respond to requests for comment.)

Teverbaugh says Mares has tried to suggest there must have been wrongdoing, even though he's made no specific allegations.

"It's easy to imply that something had to be squirrelly or wrong with it," he says. "It's easy for the auditor to throw rocks at it."

The WPRA has handed over all the documents on the real-estate transaction to Mejia, adds Teverbaugh, and that's all it is obligated to do.

"The agreement between Denver and the WPRA doesn't enable the auditor of the City and County of Denver to audit Winter Park," he adds. "Winter Park reports to the director of parks and recreation."

Mares scoffs at this.

"WPRA is an agency of the city," says Mares. "They are a trustee over city assets, not unlike the art museum or botanic gardens. We have every right to audit them."

One reason the board has taken such a strong stand on the issue, according to Teverbaugh, is that Winter Park's competitors could use the open-records law to try to garner information on the resort's finances. He says that could scare away a development partner that the city is courting.

"If an elected official can say he has the authority to audit your minutes and your books, I worry that that could affect the negotiations with a future partner. Having a deal with a public entity and a private partner raises the issue of what information should be public. It's not black and white, which the auditor seems to think it is."

But Mares insists that when taxpayer-owned assets are involved, he has the right to see the books.

"The WPRA continues to be the trustee of the taxpayers' property and is subject to public scrutiny," says Mares. "I must have those documents and must be in control of the audit." -- Steers

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