PI Editorial: Public involvement is the best medicine for good government
Public involvement in government is like an antiseptic. It might sting sometimes, but it makes for a healthier and cleaner outcome in the long run.
Take Glenwood City Council’s May 14 “executive session” for example. In the now released recording, one can hear a conversation that wanders far and wide and at times takes turns toward the personal — as some residents told councilors at their meeting Thursday. During the course of 45 minutes, councilors and city staff discuss a wide range of topics centered on enforcement of public health orders in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
What was described as a “minor COVID update” meandered through perceived disagreements with county commissioners, one councilor randomly asking about possibly suing the Garfield County Sheriff, debating to request the Colorado State Patrol enforce health orders locally and more.
In short, nothing was minor about that May 14 conversation — and it’s just a recent and local example of when elected boards make the mistake of seeking privacy for “uncomfortable conversations.” This is an all-too-common mistake on legal and ethical fronts.
Colorado law is very clear on what can be discussed away from the public eye in executive session:
Purchase, sale or lease of property;
Conference with the board’s attorney;
Matters required to be kept confidential by some other statute;
Specialized details of security arrangements or law enforcement investigations;
Determining positions relative to matters in negotiation;
Personnel matters involving “employees;”
Consideration of documents required by law to be kept confidential;
Discussions of individual students.
What all these topics have in common is that they are specific in scope. “Let’s talk about possibly purchasing property in West Glenwood Springs for a future park” wouldn’t meet requirements for executive session, while “Let’s talk about purchasing a plat at this specific location with this specific owner” would be allowed in executive session.
City Attorney Karl Hanlon explained the discussion was proper for executive session under the exemption for discussions with an attorney to receive legal advice on specific legal questions. The recording was released after council voted to do so once questions arose about whether there was proper notice to the public that the “minor covid update” would take place — not because it wasn’t a proper conversation for executive session.
We’d respectfully disagree. The law states that “specific legal questions” are protected under executive session. But if that’s understood as protecting off-the-cuff questions such as “can we sue the sheriff?” then there’s practically nothing that can’t take place in executive session. The topic of a “minor covid update” also communicates very little about the true substance of such a conversation, which puts the public in a position of ignorance about what council might actually discuss.
That brings us to our second point. More than just a legal mistake, it was also an ethical mistake. Elected officials do the people’s work. They pass budgets, craft policy and law and help guide the future of their community. But no matter how big or small the matter seems, elected officials have to keep the public involved — especially when a discussion or decision is likely to rankle some residents.
Good governance relies on being open with people about issues and discussion, even when those discussions are challenging. Especially so, as a matter of fact. One can hope that some people will at least respect a decision made, even if they disagree strongly, when they’ve been allowed opportunity for involvement. Some might say that’s naive but it’s considerably less cynical than thinking the public shouldn’t be involved in the first place.
One thing we’d emphasize in this: hiding “uncomfortable conversations” is not exclusive to Glenwood’s council. It’s something We also firmly believe that every one of our councilors is wholeheartedly trying to do what they think is best for the community. But good intentions do not on their own make for good governance. For that, you need the people.
The Post Independent editorial board consists of Publisher Jerry Raehal, Editor Peter Baumann and Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud.
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