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Say it often, say it loud

Time again to complain, to caution.

The complaint: Some bodies of local government and associated administration continue to do public business out of the public eye.

The caution: It’s against the law and an affront to the citizenry.

It never seems to cease — the tendency of some elected officials to do their collective work out of public view and outside the law.

It doesn’t matter what the matter at hand, if it is not handled as prescribed by Colorado’s Sunshine laws, or if it violates the spirit of those laws, a governmental body has done a grave disservice to the citizens it represents.

When a quorum or three or more members of a local public body meet to discuss issues, to conceive a formal action and conduct business in any forum aside from an open, publicly noticed meeting, that body has violated the law or, at least, the spirit of the law.

If, for example, a matter is brought to a quorum of a local body by administration outside a regular, properly noticed meeting, even if the intent is to describe and discuss an issue, then solicit opinion from members of the body — that action violates the law. If an attorney finds a clever way to interpret the Sunshine Law and advises an action is ambiguous and does not clearly violate the strict tenets of the law, that action is a violation of the spirit of that law— that all collective action by the body or by a quorum be undertaken in the clear light of day, with members of the public given ample, clear warning the activity is to take place.

We believe a violation of the spirit of the law is as grievous an offense as a clear violation of the letter of the law.

If a quorum (in the case of a three-person board, that number is two) meets to discuss public business, the meeting must be noticed. The topic of the discussion/action must be made available to the public and citizens must have an opportunity to witness proceedings and make comment.

Elected officials cannot meet behind closed doors to discuss public business or formulate a plan of action if the number at the meeting exceeds a quorum, or three. Elected officials cannot meet in an unnoticed session to decide what motions will be made at a regular public meeting and which official will make the motions. This clearly indicates that decisions have been made in private. It is illegal. It is wrong.

Administrators cannot “poll” members of a public body in order to garner majority opinion on an issue. Discussion of an issue and the offering of opinion by members of a local body must be made in the clear light of day. If polling is not strictly illegal, it violates the spirit of the law. It is doing public business out of public view.

Ideas must be exchanged (not merely acted out) in public meetings. The discussion cannot take place behind closed doors — not in offices, not on the phone, not in e-mails. Further, items not listed on a noticed meeting agenda cannot be discussed.

The law is clear: “No adoption of any rule, regulation, policy, position or formal action can occur at any meeting closed to the public.” It may go against what some elected officials and their administrators consider common sense, or ease of practice, but it is the law.

Those among us who care about the manner in which elected officials and their representatives conduct business must not succumb to the lure of a topic du jour. This problem does not ride one pony. The enduring issue is whether public business is done in a lawful and ethical manner. This should be our key demand, and we must make the demand often, and loud.

Karl Isberg