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Editorial: Bill an opening to greater transparency

A Colorado Community Media Editorial

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A bill introduced late this legislative session deserves support from all who want to ensure public officials make their decisions in the open and preserve the right to call them out in court if they don't.

House Bill 14-1390 clarifies Colorado's open meetings law, stating that anyone can challenge a perceived violation of the law, not only those directly affected by the action. In the equivalent of the session's ninth inning — the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn May 7 — the bill was introduced last week and quickly passed its first committee.

It remains to be seen whether the bipartisan measure, sponsored in the House by Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, can gain final passage before the session's conclusion. We're hoping it does, or at least is revisited next January. If not, a Jefferson County judge's head-shaking ruling in late March could set a dangerous precedent.

In January, Arvada's mayor and city council held a special meeting to fill a vacant seat. The process the officials used to fill the opening on the council prompted an Arvada resident to file a complaint.

"The Mayor and Council decided to vote by secret ballot, and employed a process of elimination of any candidate(s) who received an insufficient number of votes in each round (the votes for each round were tallied publicly but the identity of the individuals casting each vote was not disclosed)," District Court Judge Margie Enquist wrote in her March 30 finding.

Sounds like the plaintiff was on to something — state law forbids secret ballots in most cases. But hold on: The judge found that Russell Weisfield did not "have standing to bring his claim." The reason? He did not "articulate any direct, specific impact this voting procedure had on him or his legally-protected interests."

Case dismissed.

That's not how it's supposed to work. Are we to assume that only the unsuccessful finalists for the council position could have legally challenged the process?

If so, that's an enemy of the very transparency elected leaders so often, at least publicly, espouse these days. Allowing only a select few to protest the actions of public officials is disenfranchising to the masses.

"The very point of the (open meetings law) is transparency in government for all citizens, not just people who are directly affected," Gardner told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition last month. "Every citizen ought to have standing."

While the judge ruled that Weisfield was not injured by the council's actions, HB 14-1390 would take any such idea out of play, stating that any person denied rights under the open meetings law has "suffered an injury in fact."

We hope state lawmakers will — very publicly and very quickly — vote for that.