Our View: Let the sun shine in

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Editorial Board, February 2009 through May 2009

  • Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Paul Hughes, community representative
  • Gail Smith, community representative

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

— Saturday brought an end to Sunshine Week, an annual event dedicated to highlighting the importance of open government and freedom of information. It's a week during which media outlets, newspapers in particular, push for increased transparency in how government at all levels conducts the people's business.

While open, transparent government certainly makes the jobs of media outlets easier, the real benefit is to citizens. A healthy democracy relies not only on the participation of its citizens, but also on their ability to access information and meetings conducted on their behalf. Government efforts to block or hinder that openness run counter to those important principles.

A highlight of this year's Sunshine Week was Thursday's announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Obama administration has rescinded Bush-era guidelines that erred toward the non-disclosure of information.

Holder's memo follows Obama's Jan. 21 presidential memorandum about the Freedom of Information Act calling on agencies to "usher in a new era of open government."

Specifically, the Obama administration says it is directing government departments and agencies to adopt a "presumption of openness." Only time will tell whether Obama and his administration are true to their words, but we all should be encouraged by the announcement and insistent that its terms and underlying principles are carried out.

Open government and freedom of information are just as important at the local level. Colorado's Sunshine laws make clear what constitutes open meetings and open records. It's worth reviewing those laws, for the benefit of local governmental bodies and constituents.

Open meetings law:

- Open meetings law is applicable to all boards, committees, commissions, authorities or other advisory, policy-making, rule-making or other formally constituted bodies.

- An open, or public, meeting is any gathering convened to discuss public business in person, by telephone, electronically or by any other means of communication. A meeting takes place whenever there is a quorum or three or more members - whichever is fewer - present.

- Public notice is required for any meeting in which the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs.

- Minutes must be taken of all meetings. The minutes, including tape recordings, are open records.

- Executive, or secret, sessions are permitted only to discuss the following: security arrangements; specific property matters; attorney conference - but only when receiving legal advice on specific legal questions; developing strategies and determining positions on negotiations; and personnel matters.

- Public bodies must be as specific as possible without compromising the reason for the executive session when announcing an executive session. The specific citation of the statute or rules that apply must be provided before going into executive session.

- A public body cannot adopt any rule, policy or position during an executive session, nor can it take formal action behind closed doors.

Open records law:

- Public records are all "writings" made, maintained or kept by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule or involving the receipt or expenditure of public funds.

- Records custodians can deny access to certain records only when disclosing them would be contrary to public interest. Those records include law enforcement investigations. Reason should be given for why disclosing them would be contrary to public interest.

- The following records are among those that are considered not public: Medical data, with the exception of a coroner's report; personnel files, with the exception of employee applications, performance ratings, salaries and benefits; reference letters; trade secrets; sexual harassment complaints and investigations; and motor vehicle records, with the exception of traffic accident reports.

- E-mails written by public officials typically are open to inspection unless the correspondence is not connected to official duties not involving public funds; or a message to or from a constituent that clearly implies expectation of confidentiality.

A full version of open meetings and open records law is accessible from the Colorado Revised Statute's online database.

While the laws may seem cumbersome, they exist for an important purpose: the openness and transparency of government. Your government.

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