EDITORIAL: Council excludes public when meeting behind closed doors

By: The Gazette editorial
March 26, 2014 Updated: March 26, 2014 at 7:50 am
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We hear a lot from the City Council about the need to include the public in nearly all matters of public process. It's an attractive, popular and ethical message that deserves support.

The council majority has highlighted its open process mentality with a false narrative that says City for Champions, a community proposal for four developments to increase tourism, has been planned in secret. Of course, the council neglects to acknowledge the dozens of public meetings that have encouraged public input. The council members have failed to document the insinuated smoke-filled room in which decisions are made without involvement.

It's great that the council wants transparency and open process, but we should value the actions of politicians more than their words.

The council met Monday in another of its notorious closed meetings, this time for two hours and 26 minutes. One member of the council said some of the discussion should have been open to the public, but she declined to elaborate.

The council was behind closed doors to discuss the following, based on a closed-door meeting agenda: "legal advice and negotiation consultation with the city attorney regarding a franchise matter; legal advice and negotiation consultation with the city attorney regarding an insurance matter; and legal advice negotiation consultation with the city attorney regarding a bankruptcy matter."

That's pretty vague, and it may not represent everything the council discussed. A Colorado Springs Utilities employee, waiting her turn to enter the closed meeting, told Gazette reporter Monica Mendoza that she was there to discuss the contract of Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte. That sounds like a fourth item, as it likely doesn't fit "franchise matter," "insurance matter" or "bankruptcy matter." If it somehow fits one of those categories, the agenda was not written to legitimately inform the public. Forte's contract has been on the council's radar for months and in the news for weeks. If the council was planning to discuss it, and had the foresight to summon a ranking Utilities employee to the meeting, the topic could and should have been on the agenda as something like "Utilities CEO contract."

Council member Helen Collins, who voted against going into the closed-door meeting, said some matters in the room were appropriate for the public airing. Colorado's open meeting laws say local public bodies, which includes the City Council, are required to post notices of closed meetings that "must include a specific agenda if at all possible." Key word: "specific."

The latest closed meeting comes on the heels of the council meeting behind closed doors for more than two hours March 19 as the Utilities board. The members convened that session in the middle of a public meeting, forcing a two-hour-plus delay for people waiting to hear the rest of the open meeting.

Monday's closed meeting came two days after the end of "Sunshine Week," a national initiative to promote the importance of open government.

We understand that governing boards sometimes need to meet in private to discuss personnel matters, security, land acquisition, sensitive negotiations and some legal issues. But we expect the council to err on the side of holding meetings in the open. And we expect agendas, with rare exceptions, to articulate the true nature of all matters discussed behind closed doors.

Council members who boast so much about including the public should seldom meet in private. When they must, these politicians should do so by the book.

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