Fort Collins Coloradoan: A blow to open government
August 8, 2011
The cause of transparent government in Colorado suffered a major blow last week when the Court of Appeals ruled that elected officials could cast secret votes on important public issues.
The appellate court ruled in a case involving the Fort Morgan City Council, which used secret ballots to fill several positions.
The court ruled that there was no specific prohibition of such votes in the state open meetings law.
The Legislature, in adopting the Colorado Open Meetings Law, gave a very clear declaration of policy: "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."
The Court of Appeals shrugged off this clear statement of legislative intent in creating a ruling that allows governments to make public policy decisions by secret ballot.
In one fell swoop, the court overruled the position set out by elected legislators and set the stage for governments to act in clearly anti-democratic ways.
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When tough decisions must be made by city councils, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies, the Court of Appeals decision allows those officials to evade accountability by voting in secret.
The plaintiffs, the Fort Morgan Times newspaper, will appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.
But that decision could take months or years, and who knows how the state's highest court might rule.
Rather than waiting for the courts to finish their rulings, Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Legislature need to make it a priority in 2012 to clarify state sunshine laws to make it even more explicit that the public's business must be done in public. If the courts require specific language saying that secret votes are not allowed, the Legislature should provide that, as silly as it may seem.
Voters also can play a role. When candidates are asking for your vote – whether they're running for the Legislature, city council, school board or any other public body – demand that they pledge to not resort to the secret ballot in making tough decisions.
This was a poor decision by the Court of Appeals, but one that can be easily – and quickly – remedied.