Grading transparency in local government
Every year in March the American Society of Newspaper Editors promotes Sunshine Week, reminding everyone that government business is supposed to be conducted in the open.
Laws that require governmental entities and public officials to be transparent are called sunshine laws. They establish an important expectation: that any and all information related to government is available for public scrutiny unless it meets specific exceptions.
The idea is that when it comes to the people’s business, no one should be kept in the dark. Sunshine laws exist so that anyone — not just the media — can know exactly what elected officials, heads of public agencies, government employees and the institutions themselves are up to.
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, we offer our annual assessment of how well local agencies let the sun shine on their actions and if they’ve run afoul of open-meetings and open-records laws.
Law enforcement agencies
The 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office — This continues to be the most open of the county’s law enforcement institutions and the standard-bearer for transparency in local government. District Attorney Dan Rubinstein is an unabashed supporter of the public’s right to know, as he should be, since his office is all about upholding the law. But Rubinstein goes a step further, encouraging all public officials to be open as well. Rubinstein and his staff will share any information they are ethically permitted to. They make themselves available to explain how and why cases are prosecuted or why charges are amended or dismissed.
Mesa County Sheriff’s Office — Now that the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office is finally in compliance with the Colorado Jail Records Law, we improved its grade.
Until a recent change, the Sheriff’s Office neglected to make its daily record of those booked into and discharged from the jail open to public inspection on weekends, citing a lack of manpower.
But less than a year into Sheriff Matt Lewis’ tenure, that changed. The reports now publish automatically on the Sheriff’s Office website, rectifying what had been a black hole.
During its darkest hour — dealing with the death of a deputy killed in the line of duty — the agency could have closed ranks. Instead, it made a serious effort to keep the public informed. So far, Lewis is living up to a campaign promise to make the MCSO a responsive agency.
The Grand Junction Police Department — Chief John Camper is a dutiful and accessible public servant. With a change in public information officers, the department has cleaned up one of the few deficiencies we noted last year. It no longer seems preoccupied with breaking news on its own blog, making it more responsive to media requests for information.
The City of Grand Junction — The city generally does a good job of complying with transparency laws. Meetings, agendas and upcoming votes are properly noticed. The city went above and beyond to comply with requests for phone records when The Sentinel looked into the relationship between former City Manager Rich Englehart and a subordinate. But four days after meeting in executive session last June to discuss a personnel matter, the City Council accepted Englehart’s resignation without debate or comment, leading to questions about whether the council sidestepped the law.
The Sentinel requested the recording of the June 20 executive session because councilors gave no indication at their June 24 meeting of how they came to their decision. It’s a violation of the Open Records Act for public bodies to meet in closed-door sessions and vote in open session without explaining their reasons, or to “rubber stamp” a decision.
But the meeting wasn’t recorded as required by law. The District Attorney’s Office conducted an investigation and concluded human error was to blame.
The council conducted a “makeup” session to share its rationale on the record for accepting Englehart’s resignation. It has since handled the hiring of a new city manager appropriately with regard to transparency. It also has a clear policy on how it handles requests for council members’ emails. The city deserves plaudits for bouncing back from an embarrassing transgression of transparency, but we knocked their grade slightly to reflect that it happened.
Mesa County — Commissioners got dinged for the way they hired executives last year. Since they haven’t hired any lately, we don’t know if they’re committed to correcting deficiencies. But in all other ways, the county does a solid job of complying with requests for public information. The Sentinel had no problem, for example, getting emails exchanged between Commissioner Rose Pugliese and Tracey Garchar, the head of the county’s Department of Human Services.
Meetings are properly noticed. Calendars are revised in a timely fashion. Commissioners are to be commended for not going into executive session excessively, meaning there’s not a lot being discussed behind closed doors. We remain concerned about the opportunity for two commissioners to meet out of public sight. It’s not an accusation, but a simply an acknowledgment of a pitfall of having a three-member board of commissioners.
Without evidence that the county has cleaned up its hiring protocols, the grade remains unchanged.
Other political subdivisions
School District 51 — The Paul Pitton mess singularly changed perceptions about the school district’s commitment to transparency, but it moved quickly to clean things up in an attempt to re-establish trust with the community.
Pitton mistakenly filed to be and was certified as a District B candidate, when he actually lived in District D. Ballots listing him as one of three District B candidates were printed and mailed to thousands of Mesa County voters.
On Oct. 15, school district officials were informed of the error. On Oct. 17, then-District B board member Ann Tisue held a press conference to inform the public that Pitton was not a qualified District B candidate.
Between discovering the error and publicly confirming the error on Oct. 19, school district officials deliberately withheld information from the public, according to emails obtained by The Sentinel.
At the direction of former director of communications Dan Dougherty, the district did not make the information public. Dougherty was fired and the district took steps to make sure a similar certifying mistake wouldn’t happen again.
Much like the city and the county, the school district and the Board of Education get high marks for providing proper notice of meetings, agenda and action items. But the school board has a standing placeholder on its agenda to move into executive session. The board should only list an executive session on its agenda if it has a stated reason to meet in private. Given its track record, it should revise its policy as part of its effort to regain the public’s trust.
The district’s poor grade is no reflection of the exciting programmatic changes underway. We think the district is headed in the right direction. But from a transparency standpoint, it dropped the ball in dramatic fashion. We’re hopeful that the lessons learned will result in a better grade next year.
Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority — The board has done a solid job of meeting transparency expectations. A federal fraud probe led to new measures to improve transparency and compliance with federal guidelines.
The board does a good job of providing notice of meetings and taking public comments during meetings.