It’s your right to know what governments do
Last week, newspapers across the country observed Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which promotes the importance of access to public information.
Laws that require transparency in government are called sunshine laws. They operate from the premise that all government information is public unless it meets certain exceptions, such as national security or personnel issues. They spell out clearly what kind of information has to be made public. The laws exist so that anyone — not just newspapers — can keep tabs on the government.
We believe it is the job of an independent press to hold government entities accountable for meeting the requirements of state open-meetings and open-records laws.
To fulfill that responsibility we graded a number of local government entities. But, first, we felt compelled to point out the glaring failure of the Obama administration, which promised from Day 1 to be the most transparent in history. Instead, the government’s own figures show that the Obama administration has become progressively worse at censoring files or denying access to them, according to an Associated Press analysis of Freedom of Information Act requests.
Such actions only reinforce a growing sense of distrust with government at all levels. The Obama administration gets an F in transparency. Sally Jewell, the secretary of Interior, didn’t help matters when she showed up in Craig earlier this year and shut reporters out of a meeting that Moffat County commissioners had properly noticed as a public meeting.
Colorado Mesa University: B-
The school has been good at complying with the state Open Meetings and Open Records laws. It gives proper notice of upcoming board meetings, and it is generally responsive to requests for information or documents covered under the law.
A notable exception occurred recently after an alleged sexual assault in a campus dormitory. Campus security officials were initially hesitant to share information about something we regarded as an important public safety concern — especially in light of the fact that no arrest has been made.
The university’s grade is unchanged from last year, but we note that we didn’t challenge the school with open records requests the way we do the city and county governments.
School District 51: C+
We generally find the school district to be accommodating with requests for information. Last year, however, it fell down in meeting its obligations under the state’s Open Meetings law.
A quorum of board members met in Colorado Springs, seemingly as a way to discuss board business without a reporter present. It was an egregious example of hiding the public’s business from the public. No agenda was provided and no official minutes were kept. We still don’t know what the board discussed while it was there.
For that reason, the district’s grade fell from last year’s B-.
City of Grand Junction: C
Last year, we dinged the city for changing the manner in which it responds to requests to see email messages among city councilors and among councilors and top administrators.
The change took those requests out of the hands of information technology personnel and put it into the hands of councilors themselves, which we think created opportunities for greater secrecy. Since there’s been no change since then, we reiterate our objection to this practice and lowered the city’s grade from last year’s B-.
In a related note, but not specific to the city, we think there’s a lot of information being exchanged among public officials via text messages. However, government entities provide little in the way of phone or texting records when we make requests for electronic communications. It’s an area of great concern.
The city generally meets the letter of open records laws, but not necessarily the spirit. Our own efforts to trace the genesis of certain financial practices were essentially met with obfuscation. And one local citizen who has made a practice of questioning council decisions no longer has access to council members. He must funnel requests through the city manager. We think marginalizing a constituent is dodging a responsibility to be transparent to the public.
Mesa County: C-
Overall, we think the county is improving, but its grade gets dragged down by the Sheriff’s Department’s spotty sharing of jail records. The county’s grade is up slightly from a D.
Last year, we criticized commissioners for their handling of the firing of former County Administrator Chantal Unfug. But the person who advised commissioners on that matter, former County Attorney Lyle Dechant, has since resigned.
Hopefully, that means greater adherence to sunshine laws.
Commissioners Rose Pugliese and John Justman have now been in office for a year, and Pugliese, especially, says the right things about the county becoming a more transparent body. The county has made an effort to make more information available to the public via its website.
As for the Sheriff’s Department, commissioners have no control over the department, except to determine funding as part of its budget process. However, the Sheriff’s Department should do a better job of keeping the public informed. Earlier this month, in clear violation of state law, jail personnel redacted the name of a shooting suspect who was taken into custody. Why is this a big deal? In some countries, this is how people disappear.
Airport Authority: Incomplete
The Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority voted 5-2 to dismiss Rex Tippetts from his job as the airport manager last year. There was no open discussion on the matter, raising suspicions in our minds that the vote was a mere formality after some secret, behind-the-scenes discussions had already taken place.
The airport board received no grade last year. It became an object of greater scrutiny after an FBI raid on airport offices last fall. The board is comprised of mostly newer members who have an opportunity to right the ship and show a true commitment to transparency.