Sunshine laws are essential to keeping public info accessible
Getting information and passing it along to the public is what the media does. Making sure the media is allowed access to public meetings and information that the public has a right to know about is why the Colorado open records laws and Sunshine Laws exist.That’s the reason the Post Independent did today’s story about the Roaring Fork School District school board and whether or not they violated those Sunshine Laws. This is one example of the complexity of those laws and the importance of the media to examine if laws were violated.When the question concerning open records and the school board’s decision on hiring Judy Haptonstall as the district’s new superintendent came up, we believed it was our obligation to look into it. Asking questions is part of our job.As the story shows, the Sunshine Laws aren’t easy to navigate. But those laws are in place for a reason. Aptly named the Sunshine Laws, they require government and public officials to operate in the open – in the sunshine where everything that should be open is open for everyone to examine.The story has nothing to do with the decision to hire Haptonstall. The Post Independent has previously stated that the decision and the search was a sound process. This is about what the school board did in executive session and what it should or should not have made public.Admittedly, there are gray areas with this particular incident, and I don’t really think the school board made any egregious errors in its handling of this situation; however, I do believe the school board and other government entities should have a firm understanding of the state’s Sunshine Laws, and if they don’t, it’s our job as part of the media to question them and take our concerns to the legal experts.Public officials have every right to use executive session to discuss issues in private. But decisions that will impact the public, and even some discussions where members of the public should be involved or at least know what’s being discussed, should be made in the open.Today’s story isn’t about accusations as much as it’s about a little education and reminding public officials and residents of the importance of access of open records and public meetings.The school board just completed a long and arduous search that led to a decision on the new superintendent. I don’t believe the questionable handing of its use of executive session taints the decision or the process.Since the school board was unanimous in its decision to hire Haptonstall, how they voted is a moot point. But if they voted in a private meeting, then a violation of the open records laws occurred.Sunshine Laws are vital to the media, but the community should also understand their importance. It’s our job as the media to question and to pursue information. Public information is just that – it’s information that the public has a right to see. When doors are shut or meetings are held behind closed doors, we have to ask if the process and the laws have been violated.I urge everyone interested or intrigued by this situation to look at Colorado’s Sunshine Laws. They’re complex and at times confusing. Unfortunately, that’s the problem with legal documents. They aren’t always the easiest bunch of words to understand. That’s why when we have questions we ask the open records experts to help us navigate and provide a better understanding of the laws.Operating in the sunshine for everyone to see and observe is essential to the media getting the information it’s entitled to and being able to pass along that information to the public.Sunshine is for everyone, and that’s the way it must be. Dale Shrull is the managing editor of the Post Independent.
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