By Shari Phiel
“Excessive administration secrecy … feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public’s confidence in government.” — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
“Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not.” — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
The Freedom of Information Act and the Colorado Open Records Act are two of the most critical tools journalists have to do their jobs. But public access to records isn’t just important to journalists; it’s equally important to each and every citizen. Open access to records lets us see how our government is operating and how our elected officials are doing their jobs.
But it’s been a tough year for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and access to open records in Colorado. While there have been some definite wins, there have also been some difficult losses.
In the win column we have the recent lawsuit between the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the Pueblo Chieftan and the Colorado Independent news media, and Colorado State University. The suit argued that CSU’s Board of Governors violated Colorado’s open records statute when it selected Joe Blake as the sole candidate for the CSU chancellor’s position during a closed door session.
Passed in 1973, the Colorado “Sunshine Law” states that although “governing boards of institutions of higher education including the regents of the University of Colorado may … hold executive sessions to consider … the appointment or employment of a public official or employee,” that does not apply to discussions concerning members of the state public body.
Larimer District Judge Stephen Schapanski would seem to agree. On June 21, Schapanski ruled that, “Colorado State University’s governing board violated the state open meetings law when it selected one of its members as the sole finalist for chancellor in a private session.” Schapanski further ordered the CSU to publicly release 1½ hours of recordings from the four hour session held on May 5. CSU filed an appeal earlier this month noting Schapanski’s ruling set a “troubling” precedent by ordering the release of closed door meeting records.
In the loss column sits the recent decision by the Colorado Supreme Court in the Town of Marble v. Darien case. In 2004, Marble’s town council voted to reject a proposal to establish a monument at a local park. The Dariens argued that the meeting agenda did not indicate a vote would taken at the meeting, noting the agenda only indicated a report update would be presented — which had been done on a regular basis — and violated the “full” notice requirement of Colorado’s open meetings law.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled the meeting notice met the full notice requirement because an “ordinary member of the community would understand that the agenda item listed on the notice would include consideration of, and possible formal action on, the park proposal.”
Given this decision, meeting notices will still be able to meet the requirement to provide “specific agenda information” where possible without having to provide advance notice that voting on agenda items may occur. How this ruling will apply to new business items that were not specified on the agenda remains unclear.
Our job as journalists is to attend those meetings, to record and report on what happens and to keep the public informed. But it’s still up to the citizens, to members of the public, to get involved, make their voices heard and, most importantly, to make sure the government is working as openly and as efficiently as possible.