Shouldn’t have to ask for sunshine
Do you know what a “sunshine” law is? How about an open meeting law? Whatever term you use – it varies from state to state – the intent is the same. To ensure openness in government. Period. No questions asked.But wait, there is a question to ask, in fact many. Because just how diligent do you really think our elected officials are in complying? I might also add that it’s not just electeds that are covered but all public body-appointed positions, as well. So let’s look at what we’re talking about and who it affects.As a matter of record, the term as defined by the Colorado Constitution is open meeting law. It was adopted in 1973 with revisions in 1977, 1985 and 1996 and outlines two main categories of concern to us locally: meetings of local public bodies themselves and the officials involved in them, generally referred to as board members.Local public body means “any board, committee, commission, authority, or other advisory, policy-making, rule-making, or formally constituted body of any political subdivision of the state and any public or private entity to which a political subdivision, or an official thereof, has delegated a governmental decision-making function.” This is the easy part. Generally, we all know who the electeds and appointeds are, and we know they know. Where it gets dicey is the next part, public meetings. A public meeting is defined as “any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business in person, by telephone, or other means of communication.” There are several parts of this section that I would like to explore. I’ll get some out of the way first before I get into what prompted me to write this column because you all know that I want you to be well informed. I write because something has come to my attention that most probably has not come to yours, something that I think you need to know.To begin with, there are some rules. “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.” The law explicitly prohibits members from exchanging opinions among themselves outside of a public meeting. Here’s where the dicey part comes in. It is ILLEGAL for two county commissioners or three Vail town councilmen to discuss any public business without notice to the public and out of earshot of the public. And it clearly states that electronic mail communication among members is subject to the same regulations – you know, like in e-mail. To be specific, “If elected officials use electronic mail to discuss pending legislation or other public business among themselves, the electronic mail shall be subject to the requirements of this section.” In one jurisdiction in Florida, all e-mail communication between school board members has been ordered to be to be forwarded to the local newspaper as a safeguard.That means these people cannot meet together, phone each other or sit at their keyboard and circulate opinions among themselves. If they do, they are holding deliberations without public oversight or involvement in clear violation of the law.So what do you think? Any slightly outside chance that this happens? Only on a daily basis would be my guess. And it’s more than just a guess. Suffice it to say, you better your sweet patootie it happens. But I’ve written about this before. For example, do you think it’s a coincidence that after our Town Council elections, a mayor is elected on the first ballot? Probably one of the few times a unanimous decision is reached by the group, and it happens on their very first vote. Come on.I’ll write more about that aspect at a later date. I want to address now what one of my co-workers would say “got my knickers in a twist” this week.Another part of the open meeting law has to do with notice, which is meant to be “full and timely.” I’ll do timely first. It simply means 24 hours in advance of the discussion being noticed, in a public, pre-ordained location. There’s more, but that will do for now. Simple.But what is “full”? Another tricky question. Here’s what prompted me to write this column, but first you need some background. As you are all aware by now, I regularly attend the conference center committee meetings. Last Wednesday was the final one before the public presentation and without a doubt, the most arduous. If nothing else, it was another endurance contest, lasting three and a half hours.The final presentation was reviewed with the most time allocated to discussing what three key options were to be suggested for the Town Council to deliberate. So you can only imagine the amazement with which I searched the published Town Council meeting agenda only to find that what the majority considered to be the most controversial choice – raising taxes again – was in fact not noticed. We spent three and a half hours debating the choices and the one that was surely to bring the most people off their sofa and into the Town Council chambers was not published. That is until I called and asked the town attorney, who is both conscientious and fair, for a revision that was published. But citizens should not have to be the watchdogs of a government we pay for and officials we elect. These things should be done correctly because it’s the right thing to do. We should be able to rely on that. Otherwise we should either change the systems or the players.Do your part: call them and write them. To contact the Town Council, call 479-1860, ext. 8, or e-mail email@example.com. To contact Vail Resorts, call 476-5601 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, vaildaily.com-columnists or search:ferry. Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, colorado
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