Rob Douglas: Vigilant press improves government

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Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Douglas here.

By defending the rights of the citizens of Steamboat Springs to be informed about what members of a previous Steamboat Springs School Board were illegally discussing in secret in January 2007, the Steamboat Pilot & Today upheld the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in the manner envisioned by the founders of our country.

Because that statement may sound self-serving to those who mistakenly believe I work for the Pilot & Today, let me set the record straight. When the Pilot & Today offered me the opportunity to author a weekly opinion piece, it was with the understanding that I would do so as an independent columnist with complete autonomy to decide the subject matter and content of my columns.

The paper's management went one step further and specifically requested that I criticize their work when I felt the need. As regular readers know and management at the paper is painfully aware, I have not been shy in taking the paper to task in my columns publicly and privately behind closed doors when I feel the paper has missed the mark. I will continue to do so as warranted, but today I applaud the efforts of the paper in fulfilling its role as government watchdog.

As reported this week, the School Board voted, 4-1, on Monday to accept the Pilot & Today's settlement offer relating to "a March ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the previous School Board violated the state's Open Meetings Law by not properly announcing the intention of its executive session at a Jan. 8, 2007, meeting." The only School Board member who voted against the settlement was John DeVincentis.

Contrary to the ill-informed beliefs of some - typified by the irrational bleating of DeVincentis when he stated the Pilot & Today just "wants to prove a point" and that the Pilot & Today's decision to enforce the law was "an in-your-face move by them to take $50,000 away from our students" - the role of the press is to ensure that the actions and deliberative processes of government remain open and visible to the governed. If DeVincentis doesn't understand that truism, he should be sitting behind a school desk, not on a school board.

Specifically, the constitutionally mandated role of the press is to act just as the most vigilant citizen would in observing and reporting to his neighbors the daily activities of government. That is what sets this country apart from many around the globe where members of the press are imprisoned and killed for daring to observe - much less question - the government.

Sadly, in fulfilling the role of an unblinking citizen, a member of the Pilot & Today is often the only "citizen" in the room. In Routt County, it is common that Tom Ross, Brandon Gee, Zach Fridell or another reporter is the only person outside of government present when our public bodies - consisting of elected officials or their designates - make decisions that impact us all for years to come.

Whether it's the Routt County Board of Commissioners, the Steamboat Springs City Council, the Oak Creek, Hayden and Yampa town boards, or the multitude of school boards, planning commissions and advisory committees that meet each month, an employee of the Pilot & Today often is the only member of the public in attendance for significant portions of the proceedings. In fact, depending on the number of meetings to be covered on any given day, there are times when the paper can't cover them all.

Indeed, the paper is often criticized for not covering more government meetings and actions than it does. Members of the public and government insiders routinely contact reporters, columnists and editors at the Pilot & Today alleging malfeasance on the part of a local government agency or official.

And although most allegations of impropriety and thousands of hours of sitting in government meetings happily results in demonstrating that the citizens of Routt County have government representatives they can be exceedingly proud of, there are times when the watchdog function of the press proves beneficial.

Of recent vintage, the Pilot & Today has prevailed in two Open Meetings Law cases - the School Board matter settled this week and a suit against the Oak Creek Town Board that also was settled in favor of the paper. The newspaper played a significant role in the Steamboat Springs City Council's decision to conduct public interviews of applicants for the recently filled position of city manager; uncovered a potentially illegal e-mail meeting by the Oak Creek Town Board that resulted in the board changing its e-mail procedures; won a motion to unseal records in the Luz Cisneros murder case; uncovered inconsistencies in documents provided to the public by former Oak Creek Police Chief Russ Caterinicchio; and, more often than most of us know, picked up the phone to warn our public representatives to keep the public's business public.

Additionally, reporters and editors at the Pilot & Today spend countless hours reviewing thousands of pages of public documents and attending meetings each month so that they can - to the best of their ability - keep us informed about what our local governments are doing and, by their presence, remind officials that the public is watching their actions.

So, no matter what DeVincentis and his ilk think about the role of a free press - or precisely because they don't understand or value the role of a free press - the Pilot & Today must continue to remain vigilant.

To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail Rob.Douglas@Comcast.net

Comments

another_boater 5 years, 7 months ago

very good points. It is still a big shame that this couldn't have been done pro bono or come out of the pockets of the offending board members...it would be nice to see them held personally accountable for the $50,000 missing from the budget.

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aichempty 5 years, 7 months ago

The School Board should sue the attorney who gave them the bad advice for malpractice.

Board members who rely upon the advice of a licensed attorney or accountant cannot be held personally liable for following that advice, but the board can be, and this is exactly what happened. It also happens with other state-chartered boards including water and sanitation districts and homeowners associations, for example.

When a judge awards attorneys fees to a party, that's a tripwire that can be used to file a complaint against the losing attorney if faulty legal advice was the cause of the loss.

We've got lots of attorneys running around encouraging board members to thwart the law in the belief that deep pockets will deter private citizens from taking the matter to court. This is a case where the attorneys need to be sent a message that giving advice contrary to the law has consequences for THEM. Otherwise, the abuse will never stop.

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