The Grand Junction City Council needs to call for a mandatory training on sunshine laws. It should be led by someone who understands the law’s requirements.
Normally, the city attorney would be a good candidate because his job is to make sure council decisions pass legal muster. But since the council frequently manages to do the people’s business in the dark, it appears he’s not well-suited to the task.
Maybe the council should call Jeff Roberts, the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. Roberts is called upon frequently by the Sentinel to explain the provisions of open meetings and open records laws — usually after the council is accused of doing public business in secret.
Actually, we shouldn’t single out the City Council. County commissioners, the school board — even the governor’s office — all seem to struggle with transparency. And no matter how many times we condemn these legal and ethical transgressions, it’s just a matter of time before they happen again. The law is long on the proper way of conducting business, but short on penalties for not doing it.
In the latest episode of local government by secrecy, the City Council awarded sizable raises to the city manager and the city attorney by email conversation instead of in open session.
The Sentinel’s Duffy Hayes had to ask for information about the raises since there was no record of them. He reported on the raises and we went so far as to defend City Manager Greg Caton’s raise in a Dec. 12 editorial. We’ve since learned that the raises were never awarded in a public meeting as the law requires, thanks to an open records request by citizen watchdog Dennis Simpson.
Simpson’s request revealed that the City Council hashed out the raises via group email initiated by Mayor Rick Taggart.
The mayor provided compensation comparison charts for the council’s review, to which four of six city councilors responded with their support for raises for Caton and City Attorney John Shaver.
In his response City Councilor Chuck McDaniel — one of the four newest additions to the council — posed a question to Taggart: “Does the increase now go through a public process other than final approval of the budget?” It’s worth noting that McDaniel is an attorney — the only other attorney in the council chambers not named Shaver who spotted the irregularity and called it out.
McDaniel was either ignored or told that nothing untoward was unfolding regarding the process to determine raises. Later, a city spokesman seemed to suggest that since the council voted on the budget in open session — which included the raises — that the council was somehow in the clear.
It doesn’t work that way.
The state law — CRS 24-6-402(4) — requires public notice for any meetings at which formal action occurs or a proposed policy is adopted, or for any meetings at which a majority or quorum of the body is in attendance or expected to be in attendance.
“In this case, the council ‘attended’ an email meeting but there was no way of notifying the public nor was there a way for the public to observe the meeting,” Roberts told the Sentinel.
The city attorney should know this. Even Mayor Taggart indicated that the council can’t decide on raises in executive session. But an email exchange hidden from the public and “attended” by a quorum is an executive session.
The council owes its constituents an explanation. If history is any indication, they’ll gloss this over and move onto the next agenda item. McDaniel should see his inquiry through and move for a public process on the raises (one of which should be strongly reconsidered at this point) and then call a motion for mandatory sunshine law training.