Sunshine grades

The idea of transparency in government is not some lofty-but-unattainable goal like world peace or bipartisan effectiveness in Congress. It is a standard reasonably easy to meet with rules — especially for state and local government — delineated by straightforward, unambiguous laws.

Moreover, government transparency is critical to the operation of our representative form of democracy. Citizens must be able to see and understand what their elected representatives and administrators are doing to make informed decisions at election time and to provide input at other times.

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 and to honor the just-completed Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, we offer the below ranking of a number local government entities.

Colorado Mesa University: B+. With this grade, the university and its Board of Trustees receive The Daily Sentinel’s 2013 Sunshine Award.

As Mike Wiggins notes on the facing page, there was a big issue with what was then Mesa State College and its Board of Trustees nearly a decade ago and the process employed at the time to choose college President Tim Foster.

But since then, the college — now university — has been very 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.

City of Grand Junction: B-. The city would have been right up there with the college in the rankings if it had not recently changed the manner it responds to requests to see email messages between city councilors and among councilors and top administrators.

Until recently, the city’s information technology personnel — the true custodians of such information — responded to such requests by searching the city’s email servers, then had legal counsel review them before submitting them to local news media or citizens.

However, now the requests are turned over to councilors themselves, who then have the opportunity to scrub their email of any messages they don’t want the public to see, or simply not respond, as is too often the case.

The city also gets lower marks for its lack of recordings or notes from many of its work sessions.

School District 51: B-. We think the school district does an adequate job in complying with laws related to open meetings — providing thorough advance notice of what is to be discussed at meetings and ensuring there are full records of those meetings. It is careful about the use of executive sessions and helpful in providing records sought by citizens and news media.

Our main problem with District 51 is its refusal to provide as much information as it could on controversial events such as the recent student attack on another student at Fruita 8-9 School. The public should be able to know whether any school personnel were disciplined as a result of the incident and what steps were taken to prevent similar events.

Mesa County: D. The county receives our lowest grade among government entities we reviewed locally.

Much of that is due to the county commissioners’ handling of the firing of former County Administrator Chantal Unfug — the improper notice of any meeting that led to her dismissal, the lack of an agenda, the lack of minutes and recording of any business whatsoever and the question of whether there even was a legal meeting.

The commissioners and their attorney either don’t understand the law, or they simply chose to skirt it in this case.

Mesa County also gets low marks because the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department has recently changed the way it does jail bookings and other reports. It no longer provides enough information to allow citizens to know what has occurred, or to comply with state law.

We hope the county will begin to change and become more transparent to the citizens it serves.


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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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