By Terri Lynn Oldham House
In an unprecedented action on Tuesday night, the Pagosa Fire Protection District’s (PFPD) board of directors voted to release the recording of a questionable executive session held on April 12.
While it is perfectly legal for a board to hold executive sessions, those sessions have legal limits. Many argue that, in most cases, executive sessions are unnecessary.
SUN staff recognized something questionable played out following the PFPD’s executive session during board remarks.
Elected officials cannot lay the groundwork for policy, positions and regulations out of public view. It is legislative policy that formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.
Why should we care about meetings being open to the public?
First and foremost, because it is the law.
Does following the law matter?
If our elected officials can choose when they want to obey the law, can we as private citizens do the same thing?
If you let a board get away with doing something illegal, where do you draw the line?
Private communication concerning policy, decisions and informal discussions held behind closed doors lead to doubt and distrust.
The SUN made a Colorado Open Records Act request for the recording of the executive session. The PFPD denied The SUN’s request.
No portion of the record of an executive session of a local public body is open for public inspection, except with the consent of the local public body, or in this case, the PFPD board of directors.
The day after access was denied, SUN staff met with board chair LeRoy Lattin and Chief Randy Larson to discuss our concerns.
Lattin, a volunteer with the PFPD for 40 years and board of directors member for eight years, clearly has his heart in the right place. His colleague Larson is the consummate professional, with the district’s best interests in mind.
The two of them agreed to take the matter to the board of directors and, subsequently, a special meeting was called for Tuesday night.
In what was joked about as being the shortest meeting of the board, the board voted unanimously to release the recording.
And, while not noticed on the agenda, the board took corrective steps and voted on decisions made in the illegal executive session in order to make them official before the new board members are seated in May.
The board had given Larson a $5,000 raise during that executive session without discussion or a vote in public.
That decision might have never been known if not for the Sunshine Law, which says all meetings of a quorum of a local public body at which public business is to be discussed, will be open to the public.
In the meeting, the board thanked SUN staff for bringing the matter to their attention and acknowledged their “procedural error” saying that there had been no “ill intent” in their actions.
We commend the board for their action to make the recording public. We respect them for not hesitating to do the right thing once they were presented with our concerns. They didn’t waste thousands of taxpayers’ dollars fighting a court battle when the evidence was overwhelmingly against them.
There are boundaries established by Colorado law. These are boundaries that elected officials agree to abide by when they serve in office.
The reasoning behind the law is simple — the public has the right to know.