City government has one role: to serve the people with the taxes they pay. The governed own the government and have every right to watch it function in broad daylight.
Colorado Springs city leaders lost sight of this when they began settling major lawsuits behind closed doors, spending large chunks of public money without letting taxpayers know the details.
The practice came to light only because Gazette reporter Conrad Swanson interviewed City Council members and exposed about $5.4 million in legal settlements decided behind closed doors. Cases included claims for racial and gender discrimination since 2013.
Though city lawyers and council members believe they broke no laws, multiple legal experts not working for the city believe the closed-door settlements violated state open meetings statutes.
Swanson’s act of shining light on a shady practice speaks volumes about the value of the public’s right to know. As a result of Gazette reports, the City Council took action to prevent additional episodes of closed-door settlements.
The council and city attorneys changed their practices in August and unanimously approved three ordinances Tuesday to ensure all major settlements are decided in public view.
The first ordinance allows city attorneys to brief council members in closed session about details of settlements involving more than $100,000. Any decision about the settlements must be made by a formal vote of the council after it reconvenes in a meeting open to the public.
The second ordinance requires the city attorney to report to the council and mayor within three days the details of any tentative settlement of $100,000 or more.
The third ordinance authorizes the city attorney to settle minor lawsuits or other matters up to $50,000.
“I applaud passage of ordinances to engage in a more transparent process for approval. It has been a puzzle to me why the council could not have been doing that all along,” said state Sen. Bob Gardner, as quoted in a Gazette news story.
Gardner, an attorney, co-sponsored a 2012 law that forbids local governing boards from using secret ballots to make decisions. Before the City Council embraced its new procedures, council members gave “nods” of final approval to city attorneys in closed meetings.
In a perfect world, every detail of city governance would be on full display for the public. In the real world, that’s not possible. Negotiations for sensitive legal settlements and property transactions, for example, cannot always be conducted in public without putting taxpayers at significant risk for costly outcomes. Public knowledge of land negotiations, for example, are known to cause competition that runs up prices.
The ordinances approved this week strike a good balance. They allow council members and city lawyers to negotiate in the public’s best interest but ensure the public will know outcomes and costs before decisions are final. This adds public scrutiny as a check on decisions our government makes about money and just resolutions to conflicts.
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” explained Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
A government of, by and for the people must do its work in the open. Thanks to one reporter and three new laws, the government will better inform the governed from now on.