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Who is above the law?

A comment made by Town Manager David Mitchem at Tuesday’s meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council puts us again in mind of the tendency by some local officials to step beyond the bounds established by Colorado law.

Regrettably, too many local government officials and bodies violate the letter of the Colorado Open Meetings law and often ignore the intent of the regulations.

Tuesday, Mitchem informed the council that the town had selected an insurance carrier. He stated he had conducted a phone poll of council members. (At least one member of the council reported no contact on the matter.)

The problem is with the process. And it is not an uncommon problem in Pagosa Country.

According to the Open Meetings (“Sunshine”) Law, a meeting is defined as, “any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business, in person, by telephone, electronically, or other means of communication.”

A meeting of a local body, in this case the town council, is defined as, “All meetings of a quorum or three or more members, whichever is fewer, at which public business is to be discussed or at which actions may be taken …”

As in a “poll” of the members of the town council.

The poll was a public meeting under the law and the law sets the standards.

To quote the law: “Public Notice is to be given prior to all meetings where the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs or at which a majority or quorum is expected to be in attendance. Notice must be ‘full and timely.’”

Local public bodies such as the council “… may comply with ‘full and timely’ by posting a notice in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting. Public notices must include a specific agenda if at all possible.”

Further, “Local public bodies must keep minutes of meetings where formal action does or could occur.” Those minutes, says the law, are to be “promptly recorded.”

The meetings are to be open to the public.

Were these criteria met in the above-mentioned incident?

We doubt it.

Some might say, “It’s only an insurance contract. What’s the big deal?”

To that we answer: “If this item was handled thus, what other business is undertaken in a similar manner? And, most important, does the law matter? If public officials can choose when and if to obey the law do we, then, have the same right?”

Elected officials in a number of other local governmental bodies share this problem. They brush aside the idea that public business cannot be discussed by a quorum of elected members of a body outside a lawfully constituted meeting. They deride the idea that they cannot lay the groundwork for policy, positions, regulations, et al, out of public view.

They are, after all, elected officials.

It is not realistic to expect elected officials will never convene informally and, in a moment of absent-mindedness, discuss public business. Such a thing is inevitable in a small community. But, we expect individuals elected to serve our best interests, to live by the same standards they expect others to live by. Pragmatism is one thing, Machiavellian double standards are another. Occasional mistakes are one thing, regular practice is another.

Those officials and administrators who continue to flaunt their privileged status by setting themselves above the law should be removed.

Karl Isberg