Brent Boyer: Spring — it’s time for Sunshine
March 18, 2010
When is the last time you attended a school board meeting, or went down to City Hall to inspect the planning documents of that building project down the street?
Have you looked over your city's annual budget in the past couple of years, or did you take the time to download and read the Steamboat 700 annexation agreement?
These are just a few examples of open government at work. Sadly, far too few of us take advantage of the opportunity to check in on those in charge of spending our tax dollars and providing the basic services that allow our communities to function safely and responsibly.
Open and transparent government isn't about the media, though it often feels like we're the ones most loudly trumpeting it. Instead, it's about every one of us and our right, in a democratic nation, to know what our elected representatives are doing and how they're paying for it. It's about accountability and trust, both of which too often are lacking when we talk about government at any level.
Take, for example, the recently released results of a Scripps Howard News Service public opinion poll that revealed that 70 percent of Americans believe the federal government is either "very secretive" or "somewhat secretive." Forty-four percent said it is "very secretive."
The perception of state and local governments is better, with only 36 percent of respondents saying they believe their local governments are very or somewhat secretive.
Of course, just because people think it doesn't make it so, and I'll be the first to acknowledge that we have many honest, hard-working officials at the local, state and federal levels. Most of them perform thankless jobs and perform them well.
But even the best ones are prone to neglecting, ignoring or, worse, shunning open meetings and open records laws. There's a reason those laws exist, and it's the obligation of government officials, elected and otherwise, to know and understand those laws.
We're in the midst of Sunshine Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Society of News Editors to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels. Sunshine Week also encourages residents to take advantage of the access to information afforded them in our country, and to challenge officials when that information is improperly withheld.
As a reminder to all of us, below is a breakdown of Colorado's open meetings and open records laws.
Open meetings law
■ Open meetings law is applicable to all boards, committees, commissions, authorities or other advisory, policymaking, 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.
If you are aware of or suspicious of government actions that restrict your right to access public information, please let us know. An open, transparent government is at the heart of our democracy. Sunshine Week reminds us of that, and of the importance of holding government officials responsible for following the law.