Colorado owes a debt of gratitude to two Democratic House state legislators trying to make headway in halting the glaring abuse of open meeting laws by lawmakers from both parties.
Democratic state representatives Elisabeth Epps, of Denver, and Bob Marshall, of Highlands Ranch, filed a 13-page complaint July 7 in Denver District Court detailing the offenses.
The lawsuit seeks to stop legislative Democrats and Republicans from conducting what is clearly the public’s business in closed meetings they hold regularly during the 120-day legislative session, dubbed “caucus meetings.”
The lawsuit alleges that political leaders contrive the closed sessions by instructing paid staffers to “omit or disguise” mandatory meetings to get around stringent Colorado open meetings laws.
It’s hardly new. Colorado legislators have been among the worst and most flagrant open-meeting law offenders for generations.
State law is clear in requiring that any time three or more elected officials from the same body meet to discuss public business, it’s a public meeting, and it’s subject to public meeting rules.
Those rules require advance notice of the meeting and an accommodation for the public to observe it. In addition, there must be some record of what was said and any action taken.
There are exceptions to the rules. Public officials can meet in secret if they’re getting legal advice from an attorney on specific topics, or if officials are discussing a pending contract. Some personnel matters are fodder for closing a meeting as well.
Clearly, both Republican and Democrat state lawmakers meet in secret to discuss legislation and tactics in addressing those issues.
It’s an impudent abuse of open meetings laws.
There’s no doubt having the press and public observe and report on partisan legislative strategy would be awkward and inconvenient. But the tactics and “secret” opinions of lawmakers on making state law, and the mechanism of the group quid pro quo that gets bills to the governor’s desk, is of paramount interest to the public.
Epps and Marshall are dead right by insisting that these highly political strategy sessions be subject to every aspect of the state’s open meeting laws.
Where we disagree with Marshall is his insisting that only history and tradition are to blame for keeping these meetings secret.
“I don’t blame our leadership at all,” Marshall told the Associated Press Monday, acknowledging that closed-door meeting practices are long-standing. “There’s not moral fault in any of this.”
Marshall and Epps said they both have made clear their concerns with the illegal nature of the meetings for months, since they both were elected to the state House last year.
Epps made it clear to fellow Democrats that she would no longer participate in the illegal meetings, and Marshall warned state lawmakers publicly at the close of the session that he would act after party leaders failed to abide by the law.
There absolutely is a “moral” failing here by party leaders confronted with a clear violation of state law and insisting that it’s simply too difficult to abide by.
The public and other governments don’t get to play the “it’s just too hard” card, and state lawmakers can’t either.
State legislators know what the state’s open meeting law is about, and they routinely and purposely flout it.
Even more insidious at the state Capitol, and elsewhere in government, lawmakers use a “secret” texting service, called Signal, allowing for “secure” group chats that are then erased. The software allows state lawmakers to “meet” in group chats, secretly, knowing that their communications are erasable and unable to be revealed under open meeting or records laws.
While it may be a convenient way to negotiate votes and amendments, it’s patently a violation of the spirit of the state open meetings law. Only the lawmakers themselves can act to make it a violation of the letter of the law.
We agree with Epps and Marshall, the remedy for state Democratic and Republican lawmakers is simply to fix the problem by abiding by the law.