Court makes secrets of public’s business
It seems like one of the most fundamental and obvious tenets of government: When elected or appointed officials vote on public issues, those votes are to be conducted in public and each member’s vote recorded. That way, constituents may know how their representatives voted and whether to they wish to support them in the future.
But the Colorado Court of Appeals apparently sees that tenet as neither obvious nor fundamental to the operation of our representative democracy.
In a ruling late last week in a case involving the Fort Morgan City Council, the Appeals Court said it is all right for a public body to use secret ballots — in which the votes of individual members are not revealed — to decide public matters.
If the ruling stands, elected officials and those appointed to public boards and commissions would no longer have to defend their votes on contentious public issues to their constituents. They could refuse to reveal how they voted or, worse, they could lie with impunity about those votes.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals engaged in some linguistic contortions that would make the Cirque du Soleil acrobats jealous.
Colorado’s Open Meetings Law states clearly that the public’s business “may not be conducted in secret.” Additionally, the Open Meeting Law declares that public meetings “shall be open to the public at all times.”
However, the Court of Appeals ruled, “nowhere does the statute impose a voting procedure, let alone one that prohibits the use of anonymous ballots.” The Court of Appeals also said that, if the Legislature had wanted to prohibit secret ballots, “it could have said so plainly.”
Apparently, stating that public business “may not be conducted in secret” was not plain enough for the court.
The ruling is expected to be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, but a ruling there could take many months, or even years. Considerable mischief and damage to the public’s right to know could occur during that time.
According to The Denver Post, some state lawmakers are already contemplating amendments to the Colorado Open Meetings Law to state even more explicitly that secret ballots are prohibited by public bodies conducting public business. That’s great news, and we hope such legislation is quickly approved.
Additionally, voters should question anyone running for public office, asking them to promise never to agree to secret ballots.
The Fort Morgan case involved votes to fill several vacancies on the council. But, based on the ruling, public officials could also utilize secret ballots to hide their votes on anything from budget cuts to approving development projects for their buddies.
The Court of Appeals decision allows a curtain to be pulled shut, shielding a critical part of the public’s business from the public’s view. It must not be allowed to stand.