Public officials need executive session oversight

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"Apparently it's not enough for public entities to police themselves during an executive session," is the first sentence of a story in the Colorado Association of School Boards' (CASB) March newslwtter urging officials to oppose a bill that would place stiffer requirements on executive sessions. CASB, and several other governing boards, have opposed House Bill 1359, which would require government entities to record the minutes of open meetings. Colorado Counties Inc., has tentatively opposed the bill.

And the question is why.
It's clearly not enough for public entities to police themselves. It's too easy for an executive session discussion to leave the stated topic and wander to other discussions officials don't want the public to be privy to, and, as honest as most politicians claim to be, studies have shown they will take advantage of the leniency of executive sessioins.

Former Craig City Council members have admitted to entering an executive session so they could debate a public issue privately, and come to t consensus to present a public front - clearly a violation of the state's open meetings laws. Executive sessions have been used to discuss an employee's conduct without giving that employee the option to request an open meeting - another violation. Several years ago, the Moffat County Board of Education hosted a public meeting about the performance of one teacher. Except for the media, meeting attendees were not asked what their interest in the matter was or whether they had reason to attend the meeting.

It has been shown public officials cannot police themselves. In a meeting about financing the Moffat County Public Safety Center, it was known tempers would flare between the city and the county, so meeting organizers asked all the participants "not to mention" the meeting to the media or public.

A third of the time, local government agencies failed to comply with state law, which declares "all public records shall be open for inspection by any person at resonable times."

That's what member newspapers of the Colorado Press Association and THe Associated Press found after seeking public documents on a scale unprecendented in Colorado. In all, Colorado newspapers made 364 separate requests for public documents and 34 percent of the time the records were denied.

Until now, the public had no recourse - minutes of executive sessions were not kept, so it was virtually impossible to tell if a governing body was acting was acting within the law.

HB 1359 would not violate the privacy of executive sessios. No one but a judge would have access to the written minutes or tapes of the meeting, and then only after a formal complaint is filed. When a complaint is filed, and only if the judge believes the person bringing the complaint has a legitimate reson for filing the complaint, a judge will listen to the tape privately. If it is found the discussion wandered from the stated topic, the judge will make public only that portion of the tape.

Government's opposition to the bill leaves one to wonder what's being hidden. If officials have no fear they are breaking the law, and they are honestly "policing themselves," there is no reason those minutes will be called into question.

But the fear is there - public officials don't want to record their executive sessions. It is up to us to ask why.

Note: Though the Craig Daily Press believes that not all public officials are honest all of the time, we do offer our applause to city, county and school district officials. They received satisfactory ratings across the board during the Colorado Freedom of Information Act survey. Documents pertaining to the mayor's travel and entertainment expenses and the school superintendant's salary were provided within 72 hours. Information from Craig Police Department crime-incident logs, the roster of inmates held in the jail and a list of all persons recently charged with a crime were proveded immediately.

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