When a governmental entity tells journalists of a special meeting, and encourages them to attend, that’s a pretty good indication that board members aren’t trying to hide anything.
In June, a Journal reporter attended a meeting between Montezuma County commissioners and Bureau of Land Management officials about public land access at Summit Ridge. The commissioners’ trip to Summit Ridge had been announced during a meeting with radio and Journal reporters in attendance.
One reporter gave notice that he wanted to attend the meeting and was encouraged to go. He went. The other one did not. That’s beside the point.
Holding public meetings can sometimes feel like an inconvenience. Nevertheless, if more than one commissioner shows up to do the public’s business, that’s a meeting, and with very few specific exceptions, the public has a right to know about it in advance and to attend.
Colorado has robust requirements for government transparency, and the Colorado Open Meetings Law requires specific kinds of notice. Members of the public are free to delegate their oversight of government to journalists, and they often do, but that doesn’t mean that public notice is optional. It’s not.
On that score, public radio station KSJD was right to object. Adequate public notice really does require posting information in a way that makes it available to everyone who wants to know, not just to residents attending a meeting.
Freedom of information attorney Steve Zansberg makes an important point when he says that county commissions (and other publicly elected boards) are held accountable by the public, and that presents challenges.
Accountability requires diligence and effort by citizens who should be able to trust their elected officials to follow the law and serve their constituents fairly.
Beyond that, though, the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. If no one knows that a meeting took place, no one will request minutes or challenge violations of the open meetings law. A constituent cannot request records without the awareness that those records exist.
The Montezuma County Commission needs to make a consistent practice of posting public notice of meetings physically on the courthouse door and digitally on the county’s website. That requirement is simple enough.
Governmental transparency benefits citizens. That’s a basic tenet of democracy, a protection that shouldn’t be eroded.