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Say ‘no’ to secret ballots

Here’s something to chew on.

You go to a meeting of a public body. Elected officials are going to take a vote concerning a matter of important public business. The process proceeds with discussion; a motion is made to take a vote.

And the elected officials conduct the vote with a secret ballot.

What is your response?

If you are one of those (we hope few) people who say they do not care, then consider us on opposite sides of the issue.

The process of a secret vote by elected officials might soon become more prominent in Colorado, given a decision last week by the Colorado Court of Appeals in the Ron Henderson v. City of Fort Morgan case.

In this case, the court upheld a District Court decision, noting the Colorado Open Meetings Law does not bar use of a secret ballot by a public body. The court determined the law does not specifically prohibit the use of secret ballots, even though the law does specifically determine that public meetings are to be open to the public at all times.

As always, the strictly legal decision tracks with a tight interpretation of wording. Our lawmakers have rarely been known for either attention to the critical detail of their product or their cognizance of the problems that might occur when the product lacks that detail.

The ruling concerning Henderson v. City of Fort Morgan, centers on the lack of precision of the language of the law. As such, it could be correct.

But, there is often a big difference between what is strictly legal and what is right.

The question that comes to our mind when we are confronted with this court decision has little to do with the court and the ruling.

We wonder, instead, why any elected official, any public body or its designees, would want to conduct business in secret? Our problem here is not with the court so much as it is with the officials in the City of Fort Morgan.

We elect representatives to embody the interests of the citizens; elected officials are put in place to make decisions on our behalf. We have the right to witness any and all aspects of the decision-making process: the discussions, the hearings, the votes. We have the right to know how our representatives vote on our behalf – whether those representatives sit on a school board, a town council, a county commission, on a district board or in the Legislature. We, in fact, have an obligation to know.

Here in Pagosa Country, we have not yet faced the specter of the secret ballot. Our complaints have centered on the overuse or abuse of executive session, a process in which officials can go behind closed doors to discuss a limited number of matters — potential litigation, advice from a attorney, contract matters, certain personnel matters. A vote cannot be taken in executive session. While we disagree with the use of executive session in all but a few instances, we recognize its place and purpose in law.

But, the prospect of public bodies voting via secret ballot is something that must be guarded against here, and fought elsewhere. We need to have assurances from our elected leaders that they will not vote by secret ballot. This is a topic that should also be raised in any local election and asked of candidates during a race.

Beyond this, we need to make clear to our representatives in the Colorado House and Senate that a fix is needed. We need them to repair the Colorado Open Meetings Law, to remove this impediment to the public’s right to know, and to make the repair ASAP.

Karl Isberg

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