Our View: Make public decisions in plain view
January 29, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Bob McConnell's complaints about how Jean White was appointed to the state Senate may come off as sour grapes, but the gist of his most recent gripe about state politics is legitimate. Openness and transparency always best serve the public, and for that reason the vacancy committee that appointed White earlier this month ought to make the votes of its members public as well as lobby the Colorado Republican Party to change its bylaws to forbid secret ballots when appointing someone to an elected office.
McConnell, a now-former Republican who lost his party's primary election for the 3rd Congressional District to Scott Tipton in summer, was one of six Republicans who sought the seat of former state Sen. Al White. White resigned from his post in the Legislature to take over as director of the Colorado Tourism Office.
To fill Al White's seat, a vacancy committee comprising the directors of county Republican parties that are part of Senate District 8, and several others, held five rounds of secret balloting. The fifth round was the first in which a candidate — Jean White — received the necessary majority of four votes.
McConnell's disgust with the process led to him registering as an unaffiliated voter and, more recently, suggesting legal action against the Colorado Republican Party if it does not change the provision of its bylaws that allows secret balloting by vacancy committees.
It's not clear whether Colorado's Open Meetings Law applies to the vacancy committee. But it shouldn't matter. When appointing someone to fill an elected seat, a vacancy committee ought to act in an open, transparent manner. Failing to do so undermines the process and, worse, puts the appointed representative under a cloud of suspicion — deserved or not.
In a letter published in today's Steamboat Pilot & Today, vacancy committee member John Ponikvar reveals that he was the only member to cast a ballot for McConnell. When it became apparent McConnell didn't have the support to achieve a majority vote, Ponikvar says he wrote down White's name.
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The remaining members of the vacancy committee, including former Steamboat Springs state Sen. Jack Taylor, ought to follow Ponikvar's lead. Doing so would help remove any doubts about how White was appointed to replace her husband. If the committee thought White was the best candidate for the job, then its members owe it to her and the constituents of Senate District 8 to stand up and tell us why.
Much too often we see local government bodies and committees hide behind closed doors to discuss issues that, although perhaps awkward or uncomfortable, have no legal right to be conducted in secret. It was just a couple of weeks ago that the Hayden Town Council met for hours in executive session to discuss "personnel matters" relative to police department staffing. The problem is that the gist of the discussion was about general staffing issues, not a specific employee, as is required by law. Hayden Mayor Jim Haskins even told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that he wasn't sure why the discussion wasn't held in public, where Hayden residents could have heard from their elected representatives the reasons for adjusting police staffing in their community.
While the legality of the vacancy committee's secret ballots is not so cut and dry, this is: the public's business almost always should be conducted in plain view. It's simply the right thing to do.