A week after the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that public boards can vote in secret, Oak Creek’s Town Board will continue to discuss whether they should vote to fill board vacancies using a secret ballot — a practice the town has employed for much of the past three decades.
The appeals court last week ruled in favor of the Fort Morgan City Council, which was sued after council members used secret ballots to fill board vacancies and appoint a municipal judge. The ruling said Colorado’s open meetings laws do not require public bodies to vote in public.
Oak Creek Mayor Nikki Knoebel said Monday that while she prefers her board to vote on all of the town’s business in the public eye, the board will discuss at an upcoming meeting whether to continue to use secret ballots when they vote on board vacancies.
“I’m torn between the two methods of voting,” Knoebel said. “In a small town like this I don’t want to hurt feelings after votes, but on the other hand it’s good to open up the process to the constituents we’re here to serve.”
She said Oak Creek has for at least 30 years voted by secret ballot when it appoints new board members. But last month, the board chose to make its votes on a board vacancy appointment public. They eventually appointed Wesley Woodford to an open spot.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today raised concerns about a secret vote conducted previously to attempt to fill the position, which was tabled because it resulted in a tie.
On Monday, Editor Brent Boyer said secret ballots undermine the public process.
“The Court of Appeals ruling is very disturbing, not only for media organizations tasked with covering public bodies, but also for the very people elected officials are supposed to represent,” Boyer said.
Knoebel said she still was evaluating whether she supports the Court of Appeal’s decision, which has drawn criticism from some state lawmakers and the Colorado Press Association.
The Denver Post reported Saturday that some state lawmakers were “shocked” by the court’s ruling, with some vowing to begin drafting legislation that would prohibit public bodies’ use of a secret ballot if the ruling is upheld by the State Supreme Court.
Messages left for State Sen. Jean White and Colorado House District 57 Rep. Randy Baumgardner were not returned Monday.
Steamboat Springs City Council President Cari Hermacinski said the court’s ruling would not likely affect the way the council votes in public.
“All of our ballots are always marked,” she said. “My hope is that in spite of this ruling, the City Council continues to vote in public.”
She said board’s that elect to vote using a secret ballot aren’t likely doing anything nefarious but are instead finding ways to avoid public scrutiny.
“But I think (public scrutiny) comes with the territory,” she said. “If you serve the community, you need to be able to say why you voted the way you did, even though it’s difficult.”
Steamboat Springs School Board Vice President Brian Kelly said he also doesn’t expect the court ruling to change the way public boards in Colorado currently vote. He said he thinks it’s important that when school boards make important decisions regarding the budget and the hiring and firing of superintendents, among other things, they be voted on publicly.
“I don’t think anyone ... is going to change the way they do public business until they see if the Supreme Court backs up the appeals court’s decision,” he said. “But if they do, I would predict there could be some changes.”
— To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email ScottFranz@SteamboatToday.com