Governments should err on the side of openness
Town councils and county commissions conduct the people’s business, and except in certain special cases, that business should be conducted in public. This is a basic tenet of open government.This week the Basalt Town Council took a discussion about local land-use policy behind closed doors because it involved matters that might end up in future litigation. We don’t dispute that the council had the legal right to kick the public out of the room Tuesday – Colorado’s open meetings law gives public bodies the right to close the doors “for purposes of receiving legal advice on specific legal questions” – but the meeting did violate the spirit of the law. Here’s why:Council members said they wanted to discuss the town master plan, a document that guides growth and development in and around the town. They wanted to know if the master plan is legally enforceable – in other words, if it can be grounds to reject or alter a development application.Obviously, this is potentially sensitive stuff. If council members did in fact choose to deny a development, they could reasonably expect a lawsuit. But that lawsuit doesn’t exist yet, and if the mere possibility of legal action is sufficient to close a meeting, then open government is under fire in Basalt.There is a clear and basic public benefit – for developers and the public at large – to know how the town council feels about growth, how it intends to use its master plan, and how that master plan dovetails with the land-use code. So, as a rule, these kinds of discussions should be public. Period.Furthermore, the state law allows town boards to close their doors to receive advice from attorneys on “specific legal questions.” Were the town board intending to reject a certain development proposal based on the master plan, then that would be a specific issue. But the council’s stated reason for closing the meeting – to ask whether the master plan is legally enforceable – sounds decidedly general to us. It’s also a matter that other valley governments, including Aspen and Carbondale, have wrestled with quite publicly.What did the Basalt council talk about in Tuesday’s executive session? Was it the master plan in general, or was it the master plan with regard to the Roaring Fork Club application? As it stands, the public may never know.Governments conduct the public’s business, and they should always err on the side of openness and disclosure. In fact, it’s fundamental to their job. We hope Basalt officials remember that principle as they strengthen their land-use code and protect their legal positions.
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With COVID-19 health and safety practices in place, who is up for a road trip to see the Denver Art Museum’s hotly anticipated exhibition on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera?