Secret ballots? Ruling clouds law

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RBC I We hope the state Supreme Court will reverse an appeals court decision letting governments do the public’s work in secret.A recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision upholding the casting of secret ballots by public officials is an astonishing break with the intent of the state’s open meetings laws.The court ruled there was nothing in the state’s sunshine laws that explicitly required Fort Morgan City Council members to reveal how each of them voted to fill several vacant positions.We disagree with the court’s legal analysis in the case and worry about the decision’s potential reverberations.It’s not too outlandish to think that any number of county commissions, school boards, special districts or even the General Assembly could use this decision as legal backing to conduct secret votes on public business.It cannot be allowed to stand.We hope the matter will be appealed to the state Supreme Court and ultimately overturned.We were heartened to see in The Post’s news story on the decision that several state lawmakers are ready to address the issue if the ruling stands.We hope they don’t wait for high court action, which could take a while. If public bodies were to begin to use the ruling as justification for casting votes without ever having to be individually accountable for them, it would be terrible policy.The public’s opinion of elected officials is already low. Just imagine how citizens would react if they couldn’t find out how each school board member voted on a controversial charter school application — or any number of hotly debated issues.It is neither in the public’s best interest nor ultimately the best interests of elected officials for such a situation to exist.Frankly, we were surprised the case got this far.The broad policy declaration for the Colorado open meetings law is a clarion call for transparency.“It is declared to be a matter of statewide concern and the policy of the state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.”That’s pretty clear direction about how public business ought to be decided.The Court of Appeals judges decided that since the statute doesn’t specifically say that votes to fill vacancies cannot be secret, that means they can.It boggles the mind.The Colorado Supreme Court has previously said the state’s open meetings laws must be interpreted “broadly” and “favorably” in allowing public access to how governments make decisions.We hope the higher court takes this approach to the issues in the case if it is appealed to them, as expected.In the meantime we urge state lawmakers to consider modifications that will keep this facet of public business where it belongs — out in the open.
Reprinted from the Friday, Aug. 5, 2011, edition of The Denver Post