Spotlight on government is about the process, not the person
By Mike Wiggins
Nine years ago, a 20-year-old Mesa State College student sued the college’s Board of Trustees, alleging the group violated Colorado’s Open Meetings laws in how it chose a single finalist from more than 90 applicants for a new college president.
Megan Fromm waged her battle with no financial backing. She received no help from local attorneys — and even some on the Front Range — because they were related to, had conflicts of interest with or were simply afraid to take on the college and its trustees. She finally found a Denver lawyer who agreed to take the case pro bono.
Fromm sought access to audio tapes of an executive session the trustees held months earlier, suspecting they had illegally entered the closed meeting to discuss matters related to the presidential search that aren’t exempt under state law. They rejected her request, then took a shot at her in the pages of The Daily Sentinel.
“I’m not comfortable letting any newspaper, whether it be a student newspaper or any other form of media, (interpret law) for that matter,” then-Trustee Carol Nesland said. “As far as I know, Megan (Fromm) is not an expert on the Colorado Open Meetings laws or any other type of statutory expert.”
It’s a good thing we don’t let government interpret laws that govern their activities.
Nesland, it turns out, was wrong about Fromm — and the law. A judge ultimately rejected the college’s request to toss the lawsuit, and the recordings of the closed-door meeting were released. For her efforts, she became the youngest person to ever receive the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sunshine Award.
The recounting of the tussle between the college and Fromm is important and relevant because it’s similar to The Daily Sentinel’s persistence in trying to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the Mesa County commissioners’ firing of former County Administrator Chantal Unfug earlier this year. For that matter, it’s important and relevant for much of what we do as a newspaper.
Both Fromm and the Sentinel were accused of displaying some sort of bias — Fromm against newly selected college President Tim Foster and the Sentinel in support of Unfug. Critics claimed that we were pressing an issue that had already been decided. That we were whipping the proverbial deceased equine.
Let’s be clear about something: Fromm’s and the Sentinel’s pursuit of information was and is about the process the governing boards used to make decisions, not the people involved in those decisions. Mesa State was free to hire whomever it wanted for president, just as Mesa County was free to fire Unfug, an employee who worked at the pleasure of the commissioners.
That doesn’t mean, though, that elected officials can go about those hirings and firings, or any other deliberation or decision about public business, however they please.
The state’s Open Meetings law prescribes very specific standards for elected bodies to follow. Notices of meetings must be “full and timely,” with a specific agenda posted, if possible. Minutes must be taken of all meetings. Executive sessions can be called under certain circumstances, but even then a legally acceptable reason must be given. A recording of the executive session must be made in the same manner an opening meeting would be recorded. Elected officials must vote to enter and exit the session. And they can render a formal decision only in an open meeting.
County officials have acknowledged that there was no agenda posted or minutes kept of the meeting where Unfug’s fate was determined. Commissioners apparently made their decision about Unfug in a meeting they publicly noticed under the heading “board business.” What, precisely, is “board business?” Choosing which caterer to hire for the next ribbon cutting? With such a vaguely worded notice, there’s no way to know. And that’s a problem.
We asked for the commissioners’ emails to see if they contained any hint about how they felt about Unfug or the timing of the decision. All we found was a clear sign that she was blindsided by the decision. Sometimes what a request for information doesn’t tell you is as important as what it reveals.
So how and when did the commissioners decide to terminate Unfug? Via private email? Telephone? Passing one another in the hallway? Did the idea take root with the previous board or was it the brainchild of the newly elected group?
If this seems like a lot of questions, it is. It’s our job as journalists. When public boards take action, we pay attention. When they do so in a way that appears secretive, we dig. When our requests for information are stonewalled, we dig more.
We rely on the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws on a nearly daily basis to do our work. But it’s not some special privilege that journalists hold. These laws are intended to protect and empower every citizen. After all, these are your elected and appointed officials. It’s your money that funds their salaries and activities.
Last week was designated Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and the public’s right to information. But efforts to hold government accountable are a year-round enterprise. We’ll continue to do our part to let the sun shine on government. It’s the best disinfectant against unseemly things growing in dark corners.