It’s not a difficult concept. The public’s business should be conducted in public. The public has a right to know what its decision makers are going to discuss, to provide input and to observe their discussions before decisions are made. It’s a simple concept that has been the law in this state since voters adopted Colorado’s Sunshine Law in 1972. The Sunshine Act states clearly and succinctly, “It is declared to be a matter of statewide concern and the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.”
It is a concept that the Evergreen Park and Recreation District seems unable to grasp. The board scheduled an “emergency” meeting last month to discuss and decide a policy about people interviewing district employees during business hours. While it is unclear whether the board met its legal responsibility to provide notice of the meeting at least 24 hours before it began, it is absolutely clear that the board didn’t follow its own policy of sending e-mail notice of the meeting to the list of parties (including the Canyon Courier) that have requested such notification.
After conducting the entire discussion in a meeting of questionable legality and hashing out the policy it intended to adopt outside of public view, the board came back a week later and adopted the policy with no discussion. If the policy could wait until the regularly scheduled meeting to be adopted, it could have waited until the regularly scheduled meeting to be discussed. The actions were clearly intended to exclude the public from hearing the reasons behind the policy and the considerations that were discussed before a decision was made.
Board President Kit Darrow’s e-mail to the Courier defending the board’s indefensible actions would likely be the basis for a successful legal action against the board for violation of the Open Meetings Law, which includes automatic payment of attorney fees for whoever successfully sues the board, should such a suit be filed. She said, “The policy that we ratified had to do with availability of staff for interview purposes.” Colorado courts have routinely ruled that entities subject to the Open Meetings Law cannot correct a deficiency by simply rubber-stamping the illegally made decision in a subsequent meeting. Darrow’s choice of the word “ratify” to describe the board’s action is an admission that the decision had already been made, that the law was violated and that the board’s final action was nothing but a rubber stamp.
This board has a demonstrated history of violating open meeting laws. EPRD actions in 2005 when filling a vacancy on the board were the basis for the legislature requiring executive sessions of all governmental bodies in Colorado to be recorded. The minutes of the board’s Sept. 14, 2007, meeting went into excruciating detail of how it intended to violate the spirit, and probably the letter, of the open meetings law when it last hired an executive director.
It’s not always comfortable to discuss the public’s business in public, but absent a specific exemption in the law, it is illegal not to. While there has been much turnover on this board over the last several years, the contempt for including the public in what is public business has continued. Colorado voters were serious when they enacted our state sunshine law in 1972. It has remained as the law of our state for almost 40 years. It’s well past time for EPRD to follow its provisions and spirit.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.