It is Sunshine Week— a week during which America’s journalist community reminds readers and viewers of the importance of transparency in government and politics, and the vital role that transparency plays in a democracy.
The reminders are necessary, during this designated week and any other week. Problems with public access to information never cease — on the national, state or local levels.
The public has a right to know what transpires when elected officials make decisions. The public has a right to know elected officials do not meet in defiance of law, that elected officials do not do business in ex parte fashion with anyone or any organization seeking government approval of projects. The public has the right to know its officials do not reach decisions beyond the public eye, outside legally noticed meetings.
We have always been strong opponents of “behind closed doors” government action and take the strongest stance possible concerning violation of our state’s open meetings and open records laws. It behooves us to repeat our claim that we believe no government action should take place outside the public view. Decisions cannot be made by a quorum of officials in an unannounced office meeting or phone poll, nor can public matters be discussed at spontaneous “social” occasions.
We object to the concept of executive session and do not believe there is any business that needs the protection of a closed meeting. State law, however, sets clearly defined standards for executive session and, while we do not agree with the law, we tolerate it. Executive session has been misused and abused by any number of local governmental entities and we believe there have been many situations in which the “privilege” has worked against the public interest. In recognition of the need for the clear light of day to shine on all public business, we urge all local governmental bodies to use executive session as little as possible. A good attorney can provide a reason to close the door, but that is no call to accept it.
When considering the state’s open meetings and open records laws and their application, it also behooves us to remind readers of the scope of those laws — specifically, of what constitutes public business.
The ongoing controversy concerning possible operation of a big box store in Pagosa reveals some of the misconceptions people have about government, and what is and is not subject to mandated scrutiny.
Government bodies are legally required to provide public notice of any meeting of a quorum of public officials (or a prescribed number). The public is entitled to attend such meetings, observe their representatives at work, observe decisions being made. The public also has a right to obtain a wide variety of records relating to the operation of government.
Some things, however, are not in the realm of government in this mode. For example, a routine conversation between a potential business owner and a public administrator, or a discussion between a builder and a staff member in a building or planning department are not considered public meetings. The fact the occasion is not noticed, that the public is not invited, is not itself a violation of the law. Matters in which projects are conceived and undertaken in which all applicable regulations are adhered to and all requirements are met, are not public business covered by sunshine laws. They are common processes occurring under the umbrella of regulation established by a governmental body. Sunshine laws govern the process establishing the rules and regulations, or any process concerning variance from regulation or incentives for activity.
The point: government must conform to law dealing with correct conduct of public business and release of public information. The public must understand what the law allows them to expect and demand.