Our View: Officials must stand for transparency
August 10, 2011
Steamboat Springs — The principle of open government took a blow last week from a disturbing Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that opens the door for public bodies like school boards and city councils to conduct secret ballots to make decisions that impact the people they were elected to serve.
The court's ruling that the state's Open Meetings Law does not prohibit the use of secret ballots by public bodies when members vote on matters of public business flies in the face of the legislative intent of the sunshine laws. The General Assembly made its intent perfectly clear when lawmakers first passed the Open Meetings Law: "It is declared to be a matter of statewide concern and the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret."
Here in Routt County, the Steamboat Springs City Council used a secret ballot to appoint Karen Post to the council in 2006 despite the newspaper's objections. The Oak Creek Town Board has for decades used a similar process to appoint new members to board vacancies. In a step toward greater accountability and transparency, the Town Board opted two weeks ago to appoint Wesley Woodford by a public vote instead of by a secret ballot. But the board members made clear that their decision to vote publicly was a one-time deal and that they could return to secret ballots for future appointments.
Public bodies like secret ballots for two reasons — to avoid hurting feelings and to avoid subjecting themselves to scrutiny.
Fortunately, there's an easy way out for timid elected officials: resign their posts. Choosing to represent your community in an elected capacity is an extraordinary gesture of selflessness and civic pride, not to mention the enormous time commitment that often accompanies the position. But it also carries heavy burdens, including inviting public scrutiny of your decisions. Secret ballots, whether to appoint a fellow board member or to make a decision about public policy, undermine the very foundation of open government in a democracy.
And where would the secrecy stop? Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals ruling sets the stage for public decision-making bodies across the state to make all kinds of votes by secret ballot — from budget cuts to land-use decisions. Worse, it would allow elected officials to skirt accountability for the decisions they make.
In people like Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush and Steamboat Springs City Council President Cari Hermacinski, our community has staunch open government supporters in important elected positions.
"I believe that secret ballots make a mockery of our system of representative democracy," Mitsch Bush said Tuesday. "As elected public officials, we must be completely open and transparent."
As a community, we should demand that all elected officials take a similar stance toward transparency. That starts with State Sen. Jean White and Rep. Randy Baumgardner, whom we expect will be supporters of a legislative update to the Open Meetings Law that makes clear that secret ballots are not permissible and undermine the intent of the statute. And it ends with groups like the Oak Creek Town Board stopping its long-held practice of using secret ballots when filling board vacancies.