Sunshine grades

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 — The gold standard for local transparency. If only every local government agency operated in a similar manner ...

Former District Attorney Pete Hauztinger set the bar for this agency. The fact that his mother was an editorial writer for the Denver Post no doubt informed his appreciation for an informed citizenry and the media’s role as government watchdog.

His successor, District Attorney Dan Rubinstein is no less committed to transparency. It probably goes without saying that the DA’s office — charged with upholding the law — should set the example of compliance with laws regarding the public’s right to know.

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. The overwhelmed agency could easily point to its felony caseload as an excuse to dodge questions. But the staff never does that. They make themselves available to explain how and why cases are prosecuted or why charges are amended or dismissed. That kind of openness is invaluable for any agency charged with safeguarding the public.

GRADE: A+

Mesa County Sheriff’s Office — It’s a step forward and a step back. Last year, we upgraded the MCSO for taking steps to be in full compliance with the Colorado Jail Records Law.

We also lauded the department for its stellar response to the death of a deputy killed in the line of duty. In its darkest hour, it could have closed ranks. But the department went above and beyond to keep the public informed.

That’s why we’ve been disappointed with the dearth of information emanating from criminal investigations since then. It feels like pulling teeth to get the most basic details about crimes that are committed in the county.

The flow of information is no less important when it involves a shooting in Clifton than when a deputy is killed.  But a year after a shooting in Clifton, all we know is that someone was shot and survived. We don’t know if it was gang-related or a home invasion or if a suspect was identified or if it was a random occurrence. If you live in that neighborhood, the lack of information must be unnerving.

A recent incident at Redlands Middle School was similarly short of significant details. Parents have no idea whether a teacher grabbed a student by the arm or threw him through a window. This tight-lipped approach is a disservice not only to the school and parents, but to the teacher, who is now subject to the speculation of our wildest fears.

On the plus side, the department went out of its way to explain how things went wrong in a botched raid in Clifton last fall. Acknowledging missteps is an important factor in maintaining the public’s trust — but so is disclosure of basic facts. On the whole we knocked the sheriff’s office a grade for a lackluster flow of information in the immediate aftermath of high-interest cases.

GRADE: C

The Grand Junction Police Department — Chief John Camper is a dutiful and accessible public servant who has made a significant effort during his tenure to keep the public informed of the internal workings of his department.

Camper helped illuminate the failures of protocol and miscommunication that could have prevented the September SWAT raid on a Clifton home inhabited by an innocent family of seven. The raid was part of a multi-jurisdictional investigation and the police department and sheriff’s office conducted a joint internal review of what went wrong.

The Grand Junction Police Department employs an excellent public information officer. Obtaining basic information regarding crimes isn’t a problem.

GRADE: B

Municipal governments

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.

Even when it was embroiled in an embarrassing transgression of transparency stemming from the resignation of former City Manager Rich Engelhart, the city still earned a B-. Nothing has happened since then to lower its grade. In fact, the city’s openness during the hiring of the new city manager improves its grade this year.

Public interview panels with community groups, council members and city employees preceded the hiring of new City Manager Greg Caton, who has been exceptionally forthcoming on difficult matters, such as layoffs.

GRADE: B

Mesa County — The county does a solid job of complying with requests for public information. Any criticism of late has more to do with the quality of the information than access to hit. For instance, when the Sentinel sought to fact-check Commissioner Rose Pugliese’s contention that some employees received raises, the salary data generated by the county’s antiquated system proved inconclusive. Another deficiency is the county’s continued refusal to release a salary study which cost taxpayers $33,000. We contend this is a public document and should be open to inspection.

Members of the county’s Department of Human Services made an honest effort to address factors related to placement of children in foster homes. In the past, the county’s posture would have been to say nothing. We take this is as a positive development regarding the county’s posture toward transparency.

Meetings are properly noticed. Calendars are revised in a timely fashion.

GRADE: C

Other political subdivisions

School District 51 — There was nowhere to go but up for the district, which received an F last year for the way it handled a certifying mistake during the school board election.

Between discovering the error and publicly confirming the error, school district officials deliberately withheld information from the public, according to emails obtained by The Sentinel. The firing of the former communications director was a first step in re-establishing the public’s trust in the district.

The district responds to requests for public records and information in a timely manner.

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. Recently, the district started broadcasting school board meetings and work sessions live on its Facebook page.

GRADE: B

Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority — The board has done a good 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. The board conducted a transparent search for a new general manager. Once hired, Kip Turner has worked hard at keeping stakeholders and the public abreast of challenges and opportunities at the airport.

GRADE: B


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Kudos to the Daily Sentinel for editorially focusing on the issue of local government transparency (“Sunshine grades”) and to Mike Wiggins (“Spotlight on government is about the process, not the person”) for recounting the heroic efforts of Megan Fromm, then Editor-in-Chief of the Mesa State College “Criterion” student newspaper, to force the college’s arrogant Board of Trustees to comply with state Open Meetings law.

Although Megan was not an “expert” on that law, she could read the plain language of the statute – which the Trustees and their attorneys apparently could not.  Fortunately, Kenzo S. Kawanabe, Esq., now a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver, could also read English and agreed to represent her pro bono.

On July 2, 2004, former Mesa County District Judge Amanda Bailey issued an eighteen page decision rejecting all of the Board’s legal arguments – as well as its cynical effort to impose legal fees on Fromm.  While Judge Bailey’s opinion remains the most definitive judicial analysis of Colorado’s “sunshine laws” ever issued in Mesa County, it somehow disappeared (along with the entire case file) from the archives at the Justice Center.

In 2004, Megan received the Society of Professional Journalist’s “Sunshine Award” – before earning her Ph.D. in journalism and marrying an Air Force officer now stationed in Germany.  Clearly, Megan benefited (albeit in an unexpected way) from her “higher education” at Mesa State.

Fromm’s legal action did not challenge Tim Foster’s selection as President of the college – only the illegally secretive process by which it was accomplished.  As expected, Foster has since built Colorado Mesa University into an invaluable community asset. 

Meanwhile, local disregard for governmental transparency continues.  Apparently acting without competent legal advice, Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner spent some $90,000 in taxpayer monies before settling her losing Colorado Open Records Act lawsuit.

Please keep beating this drum.  The Mesa County commissioners need to step up to their responsibility in this, explain themselves, perhaps apologize, and prove to us they are willing to follow the law.

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