Out in the open

To many, this topic might seem stale, yet circumstances require that it be revisited. As it will, no doubt, be visited again in the future. It is the nature of the beast, so long as elected leaders fail to understand their obligations to constituents and to do business as per law.

The Colorado Open Meetings (Sunshine) Law — 24-6-401+ — is clear: Legislative policy in Colorado declares it “to be a matter of statewide concern and policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.”

Who is covered by this law? “All boards, commissions, authorities and other advisory, policy-making, rule-making or other formally constituted bodies and any public or private entity which has been delegated a governmental decision-making function by a body or official.”

The law includes “all political subdivisions of the state, such as counties, cities, home rule cities, school districts, special districts metropolitan districts …”

The law defines what constitutes a meeting: For a local public body it is “all meetings of a quorum or three or more members, whichever is fewer, at which public business is discussed or formal action might be taken.”

All such meetings are open meetings.

The law goes on to require public notice. For a local public body, such notice is considered “full and timely” when it is posted “in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting.” With a specific agenda if at all possible.

Last week, at a meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council, it was announced that three members of that council met with an individual concerning property the town is considering acquiring. The meeting was not noticed 24 hours before, in a formally designated public place.

No doubt the members of the council at that meeting have the best interests of the residents of Pagosa Springs at heart; we have no question of that. But, we have no proof, and good intentions do not absolve those council members of a need to obey the law.

How much of this goes on? And how much should voters tolerate?

How much ex parte communication goes on between members of local governmental bodies and parties interested in actions by those bodies? And how much should voters tolerate?

Further, how many times is the secrecy of executive session embraced by elected officials, when exercise of that executive session privilege is not necessary?

The voters must demand that public business be done in the clear light of day, in all but the most extreme instances. Our elected officials are the embodiment of their constituents, and those constituents must require that their business be done in the open. If voters do not attend the meetings at which public business is undertaken, they must make it known that such business should be freely available to those who report it to them.

How many people do you know (perhaps, yourself included) who rail against “government” and “officials” they believe are prey to influences and characters seeking to sway opinions and decisions behind closed doors? It is one of the most common complaints we hear. And yet, how many of those who complain, demand through their participation at meetings, or with their votes, that most if not all public business occurs in the open — that no interactions occur between parties with a specific interest in the action of government and the officials of government take place in a closed or private setting?

If elected officials fail to respond, they need to go.

And, with a general election on the immediate horizon, it will be wise to ask local candidates where they stand on the issue of the transparency of public business.

Karl Isberg