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Bleeding the Black Ink

Keeping public business public

They’re spending our money and creating policies that impact our daily lives. And, for the most part, governmental bodies, including county commissions, city councils, school boards and hospital boards, must conduct their business in the “Sunshine.”

The Sunshine Laws of Colorado, which cover open meetings and public records maintained by state and local governments, are used widely by the media but the media certainly do not have exclusive rights under these laws.

Often, however, members of the public are not familiar with these laws and sometimes even the elected officials who are bound to uphold these regulations are not well acquainted with them.

The formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret, according to state law, and any member of the public has access to most meetings and documents with a few exceptions.

These exceptions, known as executive sessions, allow these governmental boards to meet privately to discuss specific topics. But these discussions must be narrowly focused.

A city council, for instance, could discuss the municipality’s purchase, lease or sale of real property behind closed doors. However, according to the law, an executive session can not be held to conceal the fact that a member of that city council has a personal interest in the transaction.

A county commission, as another example, could meet in an executive session to receive legal advice from an attorney on specific legal questions. However, just because the commission’s attorney is present does not mean that it can just go into executive session. The commission also is barred from going into executive session to discuss “legal questions” as a topic if the commission’s attorney is not present.

Public bodies also can go into executive session to discuss personnel matters unless the individual who is the topic of discussion requests the meeting be held in public.

There are other exceptions that the law allows governmental boards to discuss in executive session. The important part as far as the public is concerned is that the topic and the reason for the closed meeting must be announced to the public and must be as specific as possible without compromising the reason for holding the executive session.

A vote to go into executive session also must be taken and for local boards that means two-thirds of the quorum present has to vote in favor of closing the doors.

If any formal action is taken, a vote must be taken in public. Public bodies cannot adopt policies, rules or regulations behind closed doors.

A record of executive sessions must be kept using the same method of taking minutes that is used during regular meetings. A resident who feels that an inappropriate executive session took place can have a judge review the record to determine if the substance of the meeting should be made public.

Now let’s move on to public records. As is readily apparent with open meetings, residents have access to most documents produced by the government.

Public records include contracts, employment agreements, budgets, department audits, travel expenses, inventories, telephone bills, some resumes, and court records.

Those who keep public records, often referred to as custodians, are required to provide requested documents within three working days, unless the custodian, in writing, declares there are “extenuating circumstances,” such as number of documents required. This extends the deadline to seven days.

With the Sunshine Laws, we can make sure government is accountable for its actions. But simply having them on the books is not enough. The residents of Moffat County have an obligation to use these laws when the opportunity presents itself.

For more information on the state’s Sunshine Laws go to the Colorado Press Association Web site at http://newmedia.colorado.edu/cpa/online/

“Bleeding the Black Ink” is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.


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