Pitkin County must kick its secret-meeting addiction
Secrecy in government is not something to be tolerated in an open society.
The reason for this is obvious: If government conducts the public’s business in secret, there is no way we can know if our elected officials are acting in our best interests – or in their own. There is no way we can know whether our elected officials are taking the most prudent course of action, or making the wisest choice among various options, if we do not know what is being said or even what is being discussed.
That said, it must be acknowledged that there are circumstances under which lawmakers can go behind closed doors for their deliberations. But the matters that can legitimately be discussed in secret are relatively few in number and identified (if a little too vaguely in some cases) in Colorado’s state laws.
And now, as has been shown in an ongoing series of Aspen Times articles, it is clear that the Pitkin County commissioners have been violating the spirit – and, indeed, the letter – of the laws governing secret government meetings.
Although the commissioners and their staff have become skilled at vague references to the state law that are aimed at justifying their practice of meeting behind closed doors, the facts make it clear that something is wrong.
First of all, it is difficult to imagine any justification for the county commissioners to have met for more than 80 hours in secret over a 14-month period. The move to secrecy has become almost a reflex – whenever an agenda is prepared for a regular meeting, it includes an “executive session” whether one is warranted or not.
In certain instances, no one at the courthouse can recall what was discussed during these “executive sessions.”
In other cases, some of what was discussed was clearly outside the legal limitations on closed-door talks. For example, one secret meeting was to discuss the “conduct of meetings,” apparently involving the behavior of certain board members. The commissioners claimed it was a “personnel” matter, but such matters are supposed to involve the treatment of paid employees who can be hired and fired by the commissioners. The commissioners themselves cannot be hired or fired, except by the voters, and the law allowing secret “personnel” deliberations does not apply to them.
What all this comes down to is nothing more than the county government’s absolute determination to do as much of our business as possible in secret. Time and time again, the commissioners close their doors, excluding the press and the public, while they discuss how to handle the public’s business.
We are not suggesting that the county commissioners are actually involved in any corrupt practices behind those closed doors. We have a high degree of confidence in their personal and professional integrity. But their behavior doesn’t have to be corrupt for it to be wrong – and they are betraying their own integrity every time they lock the doors.
We are particularly distressed by the behavior of the senior member of the board, Commissioner Mick Ireland, who is a former newspaper reporter himself. Secrecy in government is the bane of every reporter, so it is a surprise and a disappointment to hear Ireland try to justify the board’s sloppy, secretive habits. As an attorney, at the very least, he should know better than to try to defend indefensible actions, as he has been doing.
It can only be hoped that the board will come to its senses and discontinue this strange addiction to secret meetings, called for any reason, every reason and no reason at all. The public’s right to know what its government is up to is a paramount right and it must not be violated by a mindless, groundless desire for secrecy.
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Colorado has been hit with a substantial spike in COVID-19 cases, with one in 41 residents believed to be contagious. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, warned during a virtual news conference that Colorado is not alone in seeing a spike in cases and pleaded with people not to travel or gather in large groups.