Our View: Open records and open meetings

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The Steamboat Springs City Council needs to be reminded that open government is the best government.

Two instances in the past week suggest the council could use a refresher course on open records and meetings:

At the April 1 council meeting, Council President Kathy Connell expressed outrage that a letter sent to her by the Mount Werner Water District that she shared with council members was then shared with the public. She threatened to withhold such letters in the future.

At Tuesday's council meeting, the council went into executive session for a conference with the city attorney for "the purpose of receiving legal advice on specific legal questions" but did not cite the specific legal issues to be discussed.

Connell's letter was addressed to her as City Council president and asked that the city and Mount Werner Water District begin negotiating the terms of Mount Werner's sewer agreement with the city, which expires in 2005. Appropriately, Connell made copies of that letter and distributed them to other council members. But when one of the council members shared the letter with former Council President Kevin Bennett, Connell was upset.

"I will not be sending out copies and I will be marking confidential on them," she said at last week's meeting. "I just want to say that I am very upset and I am distressed. I think that we are all professionals and we should know that often times when we're beginning negotiations with people that we are professionals and we should keep it to ourselves."

But Connell's outrage was misguided. Council members were under no obligation to keep the letter a secret, since state law says the letter is a public record.

State law states "public records includes the correspondence of elected officials" except in specific instances such as work product or a communication to an elected official from a constituent that clearly implies by its nature or content that the constituent expects that it is confidential. The letter from Mount Werner Water District met none of the exceptions and should be open to public inspection by anyone. As president of the council, Connell should know that.

Similarly, the council should know better than to go into executive session without citing the specific reason for doing so. State law requires that before entering into executive session a local public body should identify the "particular matter to be discussed in as much detail as possible without compromising the purpose for which the executive session is being held."

Executive sessions should be used by government entities as a last resort and discussion in closed session should adhere strictly to the matter cited. The council hopes to hold closed sessions with its attorney every three months, granting council members a private audience with their attorney to talk about whatever issues are on their minds.

That violates the spirit of the meetings law. There is no reason council members can't identify in advance the matters they want to discuss with the city attorney and cite those matters before going into closed session.

Government best serves the public when it conducts its business in public. Threatening to withhold public documents and going into closed session without a specific reason are missteps the council should be careful not to repeat in the future.

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