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Judge says trustee emails can be added to civil suit challenging NIC attorney hire

A photograph of the Kootenai County Justice Building in Coeur d'Alene.
Image from Google Street View

Emails that show North Idaho College trustees and an attorney privately planning a future public meeting will be allowed to be introduced in a civil suit.

The May 9 ruling from Kootenai County Magistrate Judge Ross Pittman allows the emails to be added as exhibits in a lawsuit that accuses NIC Trustees Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie and Mike Waggoner of open meeting law violations and fraud. The suit also names NIC attorney Art Macomber.

Former Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley filed the suit last December. He alleged Macomber was hired as the college’s attorney of record without proper public notice. The board “cured” the violation by taking the vote again at a later meeting.

Documents Gridley obtained during the discovery process included November 2022 emails which show Banducci, McKenzie, Waggoner and Macomber making plans for a December public meeting. In a message dated December 1, four days before he was hired, Macomber sent the trustees two resolutions related to the college’s legal counsel and one that would impose a hiring freeze on the cabinet of NIC President Nick Swayne.

Gridley went back to court in April, arguing the emails were evidence of open meetings law violations. Idaho law defines a meeting as “the convening of a governing body of a public agency to make a decision or deliberate toward a decision on any matter.”

Brittney Adams, an attorney representing the trustees, told Pittman the emails shouldn’t be considered meetings, but should be viewed as benign communication.

In his ruling, Pittman wrote Gridley’s motion to include the emails does not add new questions for the court to consider, instead only adding evidence to the claims Gridley made in his initial complaint.

“While the Court recognizes some of these facts are unflattering, they don‘t prejudice the

respondents in the case itself as this is not an action in the court of public opinion,” Pittman wrote. “The allegations may be true or untrue, relevant or irrelevant and those issues will be sorted out as the case progresses.”

Pittman said the evidence he considered did not indicate Gridley made the request in bad faith or to delay proceedings.

In the same ruling, Pittman denied Gridley’s request to move the civil case to Kootenai County District Court.

Gridley’s suit argues monetary damages in the case may top $10,000, which he said would require a move to district court. Pittman replied that the core issue in the civil suit is whether Idaho open meetings laws were violated, and therefore magistrate court is the proper place for the current stage of the suit. Whether the multiple allegations contained in the suit are central to the case, or are distinct issues that should be handled separately, Pittman said, will be determined in a later hearing.

Gridley filed an updated version of his complaint May 11. Attorneys representing Banducci, McKenzie, Waggoner and Macomber have until May 25 to respond.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.