Kept in the dark at light speed

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By Doug Bell

When my sister and I were young, we loved the 1960s space opera “Lost in Space.” And, without a doubt, our favorite episode involved various members of the wandering Robinson family silently disappearing from the Jupiter 2 one at a time, in apparent defiance of the laws of physics.

In fact, every member of the crew vanished until just two remained — and their low-tech solution as the ship careened through the galaxy at light speed was to tie themselves together with a length of rope. Then, one turned a corner, and the rope went slack.

If you think that plot line was totally predictable, I certainly didn’t realize at the time it would predict my experiences as editor of these newspapers for the past 11 years. But sure enough, as we have careened through the political landscape of Jefferson County during the last decade, certain community leaders have disappeared without a sound. Fire chiefs, rec district directors, school superintendents —these highly visible public figures have vanished in defiance of the spirit of a different law: the Colorado Open Meetings statute.

In this week’s episode, Jeffco Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee apparently will be the latest victim of this eerie phenomenon. McMinimee is about to quietly become totally transparent, despite the fact that our current school board members, most of whom campaigned on a platform of transparency in government, have yet to publicly discuss or vote on his ouster.

Some background: McMinimee was hired by the three conservatives who were elected to the Jeffco school board in 2013, and who were promptly recalled in the November 2015 election. Few expected McMinimee to survive long with the again-liberal board, but I was hoping we wouldn’t once again have to run a story about a key community leader leaving without first reporting on a public discussion of the issue.

The opening scene took place in Colorado Springs, far from the Jeffco solar system and certainly outside the normal travel budget for our newspapers. While on the road for a conference, the board held a closed meeting to discuss the future of the superintendent, and then followed that with another closed session after returning from their weekend out of town.

Then, one day last week, the district announced in a news release that the board is set to vote Jan. 12 on whether to start a search for a new superintendent. And the district spokeswoman told our reporter that the board “basically is telling McMinimee they’re not going to extend his contract.”

The script of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law is not filled with plot twists; it is, in fact, quite clear: All efforts should be made to do the public’s business in public. But here we are once again, wondering exactly how this leadership change was decided on without a public airing of the pros and cons.

“Lost in Space” was perhaps best known for its pioneering use of cliffhanger conclusions to each episode, but also central to the series’ legacy was a memorable line from the lovable robot, who was frequently heard to exclaim, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

The danger to Americans’ right to know is now coming from everywhere — from the White House to local boards, from officeholders who are Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, and everything in between.

And it was all predicted in a 1960s TV series. Of course, George Orwell had a few things to say about this as well in 1945 — but that was an entirely different animal.

Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.