Let’s put it this way: We know the temptation exceeds the sirens in Greek legends for municipal politicians to, er, share thoughts by email rather more than they should.
Consulting a quorum on thoughts that might lead to decisions constitutes a meeting under state law — even if only hitting the “send” button.
A Pueblo City Council member recently resigned and two more face recall drives over this easy errant use of email. The town of Berthoud’s full town board has a similar issue with some email discussion about a former town board member’s fitness for appointment to the town’s planning commission.
This seems like a good time to review the law with respect to electronic meetings, as well as over the phone or in person with a quorum present in informal settings. Any of these discussions about municipal business requires 24-hour notice to the public beforehand.
Another dodge that we’ve seen locally is “daisy chaining” — that is, one elected official on a body calls or emails another, who emails another, and eventually everyone hears back on what everyone else is thinking outside of pesky public observation.
Outside of perhaps inviting fellow members to a party, all this works against the aim of conducting the public’s business fully in public.
It might be well worth town managers and other executives of public agencies with elected bodies to review Colorado’s Sunshine Law with their boards.
The ease of getting away with these discussions pales to the ethical backing of the law. Ignorance in this case should not be allowed to happen, not with people in high positions of public trust.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition offers some advice for our elected officials, who really should hold themselves to that higher standard:
• Think before you hit “send.” Understand that electronic communications are subject to request under the Colorado Open Records Act.
• It doesn’t matter if you use your personal email address, text messaging or some other means if they discuss public business.
• Private matters discussed via email can remain private. But if mixed with discussion about the public’s business, a judge at least may see them while determining what information must be released to the public.
• Labeling emails as “attorney-client privileged” does not automatically exempt them from disclosure.
One development we particularly like is the city of Fort Collins’ Email Transparency Project. The city releases elected officials’ email without seekers having to go through the process of requesting them formally. Larimer County and some other entities offer similar service. Now that’s a step in the right direction.
Meantime, it’s best if mayors and commission members and such tie their hands to some figurative mast if tempted to have discussions about public business free of the public they are supposed to be serving.