Don Rogers: Vail takes a legal loophole
Vail, CO, Colorado
I can appreciate the Vail Town Council’s reasoning to run the full text of new ordinances on their Web site instead of in the paper.
They need to cut expenses, about $800,000 worth this time around. So saving $20,000 in legal advertising may be a drop in a $50 million-plus budget, but still, it’s something.
Publishing legals in the paper is inconvenient, no question. The process involving a third party can hold up new laws taking root. People make mistakes and sometimes these things have to be reprinted, delaying things further.
Last week, council members voiced some appropriately rehearsed lines about their commitment to open, transparent government while voting 5-2 to make their governance a little less transparent and open.
The staff found a loophole in the law that allows the Town Council to redefine the meaning of “publish” in this instance. They flirted with this during the summer before backing off.
But last week, facing grimmer economic news, they declared that “publish” would now mean posting new ordinances only on their Web site to satisfy their legal requirement. It’s an elegant solution.
Even attorneys don’t read the text of town ordinances, Councilwoman Margaret Rogers declared as she explained her vote to “redefine” the town charter, which could not have anticipated the World Wide Web when it was written in the 1960s. Besides, the town can decide to place small advertisements in the paper directing readers to the town Web site to read the ordinance if interested, she said.
I was a little surprised that Rogers ” herself a lawyer ” would miss the point.
Very few people actually attend Vail Town Council meetings. Should that give the council license to make their meetings less accessible to the public? Using Rogers’ logic, convening at 2 a.m., 6 a.m. or 8 a.m. instead of 6 p.m. would be the way to go if more convenient for the council and staff.
The public can tune into public television or the town could post the video to handle those fussy little issues with openness and transparency, after all. Moving the meetings might save on staff overtime and some other costs ” more so than skirting legal requirements that require publication of proposed ordinances will deliver.
I’ll take them at their word that it’s OK to change the letter, though certainly not the spirit of the law that clearly intends that “publication” of new ordinances happen independently of the town government itself. The concept of legal advertising for government entities assuredly was not that they keep the whole thing in-house. That’s rather insular for an entity that’s supposed to be public.
It’s not so much who reads the legals or who comes to the council meetings as that they have the widest ability to do so. That’s what open government truly means. It’s the invitation that matters, that the most people possible have enough information available to them to make the choice of whether they will participate.
“Publication” on the town’s own Web site runs counter to the whole concept. It should not be left to the town choosing whether to let the public know they can visit the town’s Web site to read the full text of a new ordinance. The intent of the law was that this information be truly published where the greatest number of people would have the ability to read it if they so choose.
I like this council. I like how I see them working together. I like the difference in their viewpoints. I think these are bright, very committed people to their community, and scrupulously honest.
But they indeed are cheating the intent of legal advertising by taking advantage of a loophole in one requirement dealing with new ordinances to in fact make Vail a slightly less open government.
This savings will make no difference in Vail, or the paper, surviving the current downturn. But the cost is higher than they think seizing on a loophole in laws designed to ensure full openness.
I don’t believe saving $20,000 is worth it, frankly.
Don Rogers is the editor and associate publisher of the Vail Daily. He can be reached at 748-2920 or email@example.com. He welcomes your comments.