Every year in March, the News Leaders Association (formerly the American Society of Newspaper Editors) promotes Sunshine Week, reminding everyone that government business is supposed to be conducted in the open.
In conjunction with Sunshine Week, we’ve offered an annual assessment of how well local agencies comply with laws that promote transparency in government.
We didn’t do that last March. The COVID-19 crisis in Colorado was escalating quickly and each day brought new developments. A state of emergency was declared, ski resorts closed, schools closed, large gatherings were banned and the governor issued a stay-at-home order that resulted in a complete lockdown. Sunshine week grades were a casualty of the moment.
In the ensuing year, public health measures to stem transmission of the virus upended the way the public interacted with government bodies. Public meetings went to virtual formats and in many cases it was impossible to find government offices that were open to the public.
In many ways, we don’t know what we don’t know about how “open” government has been in the past year, making 2020-2021 a “reset” year.
In past years, the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office has always been the gold standard for openness, earning an A+ grade for many years running. Beyond that, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the Grand Junction Police Department, the city of Grand Junction and School District 51 have largely earned passing grades, but have been bumped or down depending on specific issues that cropped up in any given year.
Mesa County — the board of commissioners and the departments they oversee — has consistently trailed other local governments. Year after year, county officials always seem to find themselves embroiled in accusations of doing the people’s business in the dark.
We were hopeful that having two newly elected commissioners committed to transparency and accountability would change that. They started out on the right foot. During her campaign, Janet Rowland made clear that she expected the county attorney to more actively serve the public’s right to know. When commissioners declined to renew the contract for Patrick Coleman, who had been county attorney for the past six years, it signaled a shift in organizational culture.
The controversy over former Commissioner Rose Pugliese’s flirtation with the county attorney’s job, however, stalled that momentum.
That’s not to say that commissioners haven’t been transparent in conducting a job search for a new county attorney. They’ve met a minimum standard of transparency, holding meetings to review job criteria and candidate qualifications in the open.
But it’s clear that even more transparency would have served all parties. This is an issue we expect to remain in the public eye. How commissioners handle things going forward will go a long way toward determining whether Mesa County government joins the ranks of local governments with passing sunshine grades. The county attorney, after all, has been at the heart of some past violations of open meetings laws.