Editor’s Column: A new blow to public information

Niki Turner

Hot on the heels of last week’s kudos to the Town of Meeker for stepping up and restoring publication of an (albeit abbreviated version) of its monthly financial expenditures, this week government transparency has taken another jab in the political ring, followed by a friendly-fire uppercut from our own commissioners.

A state senator from Greeley introduced Senate Bill 18-156 earlier this year. If passed (it’s already made it through committee), the bill would remove the legal requirement on Colorado counties to publish their accounts payable in local newspapers as public notices. Instead, counties would only be required to post their expenditures online, on their own websites, once a year. Reportedly, Jefferson and Montezuma counties have said their local papers are “extorting” money from them by making them pay for publication of this essential public information, and so our commissioners opted Tuesday to put their support behind SB 18-156. If it passes, RBC would save an average of $2,000 a year, or about $170 a month.

For the record, the fees charged by newspapers for legal notices were set by state statute in 1993. I can’t say what other papers are doing, but we’re still abiding by that 1993 statute, despite a 30 percent increase in inflation. Also for the record, the Herald Times does not charge any of our governmental entities or special taxing districts for the publication of their meeting agendas. We could, according to statute, but we don’t. The county commissioners’ agendas alone would net at least $400 a month. I say that to let our readers, and fellow taxpayers, know that this isn’t about scrabbling pennies for profit. This is about letting voters know what their county is doing with their tax dollars every month, in a way that is easily accessible to everyone, and is permanent. As I have relayed in this column, once it’s in print, it’s permanent, it can’t be changed, (sometimes to our chagrin).

The internet, as amazing as it is, is not and cannot be as secure—or as trustworthy—as old-fashioned paper and ink. From Russian hackers to government employees who inadvertently allow access to secure files (remember those letters we got last year telling us sensitive Colorado juror information from almost every county in the state, including RBC, may have been leaked from a government website by mistake?) Or, just to toss this out there… “What about her e-mails?” The internet is not nearly as free from tampering as we like to pretend.

Here’s the real question: what kind of government entity would not want to publish records of its expenditures for review by its taxpaying citizens in every reasonable venue? Hopefully not our county.

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On another subject, this week the RBC Republican Party chair, Logan Hill, brings up the subject of consent agendas.

I’ll confess I didn’t know what a consent agenda was a year and a half ago. Back when I first started covering commissioner meetings in the early 2000s, there was no such thing in place. Commissioner meetings were long and full of lengthy public discussion. Tiresome? Sometimes. But open. We knew where our elected officials stood individually on issues, and they didn’t always agree.

Today, with the inception of the consent agenda, which is admittedly a valid application of Robert’s Rules of Order, commissioner meetings sometimes last less than 30 minutes. There’s little discussion about much of anything, unless someone in the peanut gallery makes a ruckus about an item.

I came across the following quote from a 1983 Colorado court case about open meetings (Cole v. State) that bears consideration: “One has not participated in a public meeting if one witnesses only the final recorded vote.”

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In the wake of yet another school shooting (how many times am I going to have to type that?), we’re again faced with simplistic reasoning that insists there’s one ideal solution. We all like to believe there’s a big, red “EASY” button we can push that will solve the intricacies of life.

I wish the solution was as easy as “put God back in school” or “hire veterans as armed guards” or “outlaw AR-15s.” However, none of those are a perfect cure… There will always be godless souls in our midst, according to the Bible; no one has stepped up to pay for hiring armed guards and our schools can’t do it; and outlawing a particular gun (or even hinting at outlawing a gun) is just a way to spur people to run out and buy one, further increasing the probability of a dangerous weapon ending up in unstable, untrained hands.

Which brings me to another question. When I was in school we had mandatory hunter education during junior high. We learned about firearms, by which I mean a real person scared the bejeezus out of us regarding the consequences of careless gun use and then took us to the gun range.

I’m not sure when mandatory hunter education disappeared from Colorado’s curricula,  but I think we lost an important component in preventing gun-related violence. It would be interesting to know how many school shooters in the last two decades received real, in-person hunter education training. Maybe that’s where the NRA could step up and make a real difference. By sponsoring free educational programs in schools again, not just online courses, as opposed to buying TV spots during campaign years to keep pet politicians in office. Just a thought.