When boards disallow questions, democracy fails {Guest Column}

Jen Hill

RBC | This week news reporters from around the state celebrate Sunshine Week to remind us that Colorado protects taxpayers’ right-to-know with Sunshine Laws. These laws regulate things like meeting minutes’ availability, executive sessions and public access to information. They also allow a reporter to access information vital for public knowledge.

In addition to Sunshine Laws, another essential tool reporters need to inform the public is the ability to ask questions in public meetings. These questions are the best and timeliest way to glean further information and clarification about the things we pay for and the people we elect.

Happily, in my experience with the Herald Times both the Rangely Town Council and Rio Blanco County Commissioners have welcomed my questions. They understand that I have a role to fill in disseminating information and that they are responsible to their constituents. In fact, when the Herald Times recently raised concerns with the commissioners about their use of consent agendas and access to information they made an effort to work with us that was truly commendable.

Unfortunately, this is not how every meeting runs. I learned the hard way this week that the Rangely School Board no longer allows questions. They have a carved out time for ‘Requests to Address the Board’ (which is preceded with a lecture about that not being a time for discussion). If you have a question or require clarification about a statement made during the meeting as I did, too bad. Following the superintendent’s report, I asked if I could ask a question and was told in no uncertain terms that I could not.

When a board behaves this way and doesn’t allow for the flow of information to occur a variety of nasty side effects can happen. The most obvious is that people (taxpayers and voters) become frustrated and distrustful. After all, we’ve funded those schools, we’ve elected those board members, we should be allowed to clarify something said during a meeting, and if we can’t we are left to wonder what they are hiding. The disallowance of questions is incredibly undemocratic. When the press is not allowed to ask questions the flow of information between the government entity and general public becomes incredibly constricted.

Sunshine Laws require that government board meetings are held in public settings so that the public can participate in the process. I urge the Rangely School Board to reconsider their extreme practices with public comment and access to information, as transparency and an engaged populace are the only way this thing called democracy has a chance.