Editor’s Column: It’s your right to know

found myself in yet another journalistic quandary this week. I received an inflammatory letter from one elected official accusing another elected official and an employee of making a unilateral decision to spend taxpayer dollars to investigate the letter writer’s department following complaints. However, since the letter did not include any verifiable documentation and was potentially libelous, I opted not to print it. It may “go public” some other way, according to the author, but it won’t be printed here without facts being checked and the story being researched.

If statements are made in a public meeting, that’s documented. Things that occur outside a public meeting have to be tracked down. So, we have filed a Colorado Open Records Act request to obtain the necessary documentation. I hope our interim county attorney will appreciate the value of shutting down the rumor mill by releasing actual facts. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, since there was much discussion about the “Sunshine Law” last week, we’re including additional information about the Colorado Open Meetings Act and Colorado Open Records Act, aka Sunshine Laws, in this week’s paper. Sunshine Laws were enacted “to enhance public accessibility to documented records for all meetings and information about general proceedings and decision-making processes.” (encyclopedia.com) Sunshine laws emphasize transparency and accountability.

The first Sunshine Laws were enacted in Utah in 1898, followed by Florida in 1905. Watergate provided a catalyst for other states, including Colorado, to enact their own Sunshine Laws. The Colorado Sunshine Law was first passed in 1972 and modified in 1996.

As comments on last week’s article and editorial began to appear on Facebook, I contacted the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) for feedback.

Comment: “…if people or the paper would show up to all the work sessions that are published they would see the workings of the county…”

CFOIC: “Full and timely notice is required before meetings at which the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs or at which a majority or quorum is expected to be in attendance. If a majority or quorum is expected to be in attendance, notice is required even if it’s a workshop.”

The county publishes its agendas in the paper (at no charge, because we’re nice like that) but they aren’t, and have never, published the work session schedule, we assume because it’s not ready until Friday.

We have had a representative from the paper at commissioner meetings since the first week after we bought the paper. We didn’t learn about the work sessions until we asked when things were being discussed, since they weren’t being discussed in the meetings. Once we knew, we started attending those, too. I can’t speak for anything that happened prior to September 2016.

Comment: “I was as surprised as anyone who attended last Monday’s Commissioner’s meeting but I did not see where the vote was handled inappropriately.”

CFOIC: “Your question about two commissioners making a decision in private without consulting the third commissioner I think is addressed in the requirement for when a local public body must open a meeting. 24-6-402(2) (b)  ‘All meetings of a quorum or three or more members of any local public body, whichever is fewer, at which any public business is discussed or at which any formal action may be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times.’

It sounds like no one can point to a particular public meeting at which the two commissioners (constituting a quorum) made the decision in question.”

Comment: “Personally I think those conversations took place before oaths were taken, therefore it would be legal.”

CFOIC: “The county commissioners themselves should be mindful of the COML requirements when they are in an informal setting, like a car ride or chatting in their office. County commissioners are allowed, by the way, to skip the 24-hour notice requirement if two or more meet to discuss ‘day-to-day oversight of property or supervision of employees.’ But that’s just an exemption for the notice requirement. And it didn’t apply to the firing of a department head in Lake County, according to a district court ruling.”

Like most legal mumbo-jumbo, the Sunshine Laws can be complicated. In the weeks to come, we’ll be endeavoring to provide more resources for understanding your right to know.