Bill would prohibit secret ballots for Colorado public bodies

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— A measure to prohibit state and local public governing bodies from using secret ballots to make decisions moved forward in the state Legislature on Monday.

The Colorado House of Representative unanimously approved the third reading of House Bill 1169. Introduced by Rep. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, it is intended to “prohibit state and local public bodies from adopting any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, or regulation or from taking formal action by secret ballot,” according to the bill summary.

H.B. 1169 does, however, allow for state and local public bodies to use secret ballots to appoint its leadership. It still requires approval from the Senate and Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“This bill will raise transparency across Colorado,” Gardner said in a news release. “Holding government bodies to standards that ensure a clear and open process strengthens our democracy and ensures accountability.”

Attorney Chris Beall, who provides legal counsel to the Colorado Press Association and the Steamboat Pilot & Today, said H.B. 1169 was a response to the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that Fort Morgan City Council wasn’t violating the state’s open meetings law by using secret ballots to fill two vacancies and to appoint a municipal court judge. The court ruled that the state open meetings law doesn’t require public bodies to vote in public.

“It was that case that prompted the bill,” Beall said Monday. “The Legislature has effectively disagreed with the Court of Appeals. The only way the Legislature can do that is by passing a statute.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Hickenlooper, Beall said the state’s open meetings law would include a provision that “makes clear” public bodies can’t use secret ballots to reach decisions.

Colorado House of Representatives Republican spokesman Owen Loftus said the bill clarifies the open meetings law “so it removes any doubt” that it allows secret ballots for public bodies to make appointments.

The issue came up locally last summer when the Oak Creek Town Board tried to appoint a new member by using a secret ballot. At the time, the Town Board said the practice had been in place for filling board vacancies for more than 30 years.

Town Board members later cast a public vote and changed their policy in August after the Pilot & Today objected to the practice. The new policy required them to put their names at the top of ballots.

Mayor Nikki Knoebel, who didn’t vote because the board had a quorum without her, said then that she supported the revised policy.

“I was standing behind keeping it open,” she said. “The biggest reason is so everyone would know who voted for whom. As long as they have the names on it, anyone can look. It is a small town, it still can hurt feelings, but at least they can look at it after the meeting.”

Steamboat Springs City Council President Bart Kounovsky said Monday’s approval of H.B. 1169 doesn’t change anything for his group. He said the City Council doesn’t use secret ballots and tries to limit executive sessions in an effort to be transparent and earn the public’s trust.

Steamboat Springs School Board President Brian Kelly said he didn’t support the idea of secret ballots.

“I just think it should be done in public,” he said. “I think when you take on an elected position or an appointed position ... you’ve got a responsibility to the public to stand up for what you believe in, whether they agree with you or not.”

In its most recent legislative update for the week ending last Friday, the Colorado Press Association indicated that it, too, supports H.B. 1169.

Loftus couldn’t say when the Senate would consider the bill but said he didn’t think it would take long.

“I assume it will be pretty swift because we have bipartisan support,” he said.

Rep. Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat; Sen. Greg Brophy, a Wray Republican; and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, co-sponsored the bill.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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