National Sunshine Week is March 14-21. During this week, the public is urged to pay special heed to one of the necessary elements in a working democracy — transparency of government, in particular in the form of open meetings and open records.
Once the partisan fog sprayed by the mouthpieces of vested and monied interests is cleared, one thing is obvious in present-day America: many citizens are wary about the action (or inaction) of government and are angered by the behavior of elected officials.
Suspicion of the workings of government often seeps to the local level, and it is here that we are most able to deal with the transparency issue. If we will.
While most local entities cleave to the law on most occasions, there remain problems. These problems hinge on a lack of understanding of Colorado Sunshine Laws on the part of some elected officials and their staffs, and on the part of the citizens who elect these officials.
The most frequently violated aspect of those laws concerns open meetings and who must adhere to the rules.
Locally, the county, the town, the school district, special districts and metropolitan districts, as well as any public or private entity that has been delegated a governmental decision-making function by a body or official are included under the law.
The law states: “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 are open.”
Public notice must be given of such meetings in a full and timely manner. The exemption is that county commissioners do not have to notice a meeting of two or more for discussion of “day-to-day oversight of property or supervision of employees.”
We repeat: All meetings concerning public business of a quorum or three or more members of a body must be noticed and open.
In the case of our county commissioners, for example, the law clearly states that any discussion between two or more of them concerning public business is subject to the open meetings law, including those conducted via e-mail or teleconference. If the meeting is not noticed and open, it is illegal.
The same holds for all other government boards: any discussion of public business between a quorum, must be open and noticed. Any discussion.
How often do some of our elected officials violate the law?
The other item in the Sunshine Laws that should be the subject of constant scrutiny is the use of executive session — meetings held behind closed doors. Some local entities enter executive session more than others. We believe little if any public business should be conducted behind closed doors – even when the law allows it.
What items are recognized by law as fodder for executive session?
“Matters which state or federal law require be kept confidential. Security arrangements. Property matters.” An executive session cannot be held to conceal the fact a member has a personal interest in a transaction.
Local bodies can receive advice behind closed doors from counsel on specific legal questions. Matters concerning negotiation, including strategies and instructions, qualify for executive session. School boards can discuss students in executive session if disclosure would adversely affect the person involved. Teachers’ hearings must be held in public unless an executive session is requested by the teacher. Any personnel matter can be discussed in an open meeting if the subject desires.
In the end, though, elected officials and members of the public should remember the law specifies few items that must be considered in executive session. Officials have the leeway to conduct almost all public business in the open.
They should. And we should demand it.