Our View: Take a stand for openness, transparency | SteamboatToday.com

Our View: Take a stand for openness, transparency

At Issue

City Council has been notified that certain portions of its Aug. 4 executive session were conducted in violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law

Our View

Council members have an opportunity to rebuild public trust by conducting city business openly and transparently

No one can argue that it’s not a tumultuous time for the city of Steamboat Springs.

Our city leaders are grappling with the resignation of a police chief and deputy chief in the wake of a contentious police department investigation, which has left residents highly dissatisfied due to the limited amount of information that has been released about what the investigation found or didn’t find.

At Issue

City Council has been notified that certain portions of its Aug. 4 executive session were conducted in violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law

And Friday, Council negotiated a separation agreement with City Manager Deb Hinsvark that will leave her post vacant Sept. 1. 

Faced with a series of important decisions to make, we urge the council to ensure they tackle those next-step decisions as openly and transparently as possible. We think this suggestion is necessary in light of this newspaper’s contention that the council conducted public business improperly during a recent executive session.

On Thursday, Steamboat Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman sent a letter to Council and City Attorney Tony Lettunich informing them about the newspaper’s position that certain portions of an Aug. 4 executive session were held in violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law. This position is based on lengthy discussions with an attorney who has consulted with many newspapers across the U.S. on First Amendment law.

In particular, the meeting notice posted in advance of the Aug. 4 executive session did not provide proper detail as to the nature of the “personnel matter” to be discussed behind closed doors. According to state law, the notice should have described the purpose “in as much detail as possible” and identified the city manager as the matter to be discussed. 

In addition to not posting the meeting in accordance with state law, the newspaper also contends Council took action during the closed session when it directed the city attorney to begin negotiating an exit agreement with the city manager. Even if no formal vote was taken, any position taken by city council members to direct the city attorney to begin negotiating with the city manager constitutes a violation of the open meetings, law because that action occurred behind closed doors.

Schlichtman also addressed the council publicly about the matter before the start of another scheduled executive session Friday. She reiterated the newspaper’s position in response to a letter from the city attorney claiming the city had not violated state law. She asked council members to weigh their attorney’s advice against the newspaper’s position and that of their attorney and do the right thing by posting meetings and conducting executive session business in accordance with state law.

Although it was the city attorney’s position that no law had been broken by the Aug. 4 posting, we were encouraged to note that the notice for the Friday meeting was amended after its initial release to include more detailed information about the purpose of the closed session, in accordance with the open meetings law. 

It was also significant that the exit negotiations with the city manager were eventually conducted in open session at the urging of a few council members and with the city manager’s approval. In the end, there was no question of how the settlement was reached and what position each council member had taken in the negotiations, and we think the open process served the public interest well.

During the past few months, several Steamboat Springs City Council members have gone on record to say they want to restore the public trust, and we think they are sincere. It’s our strongly held belief that the best way to restore that trust is to conduct public business openly and transparently. And we also think some of the very issues the council finds itself struggling with today could be attributed to decisions being made and business being conducted out of the public’s eye.

Conducting city business behind closed doors erodes public confidence, and when residents feel as if they are being left out of the conversation and not allowed to weigh in on decisions that affect them, dissension, unrest and mistrust follow. It’s time for the council to educate itself on the Colorado Open Meetings Law, adhere to that law and take a stand for openness and transparency moving forward.

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