In May, the Colorado Springs Business Journal filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with the city of Colorado Springs, asking for “All minutes, voice recordings and video records of a closed executive session of the Colorado Springs Utility Board during which a decision was made or ratified to file complaints pertaining to alleged misconduct by attorney Leslie Weise with one or more State Bar Associations, offices of disciplinary counsel or other similar agencies.”
Weise has advocated that Colorado Springs Utilities make public a report concerning sulfur dioxide emissions from the Martin Drake coal-fired downtown power plant. CSU and Weise have butted heads on a number of occasions concerning this matter.
The city denied the CORA request.
“The applicable closed executive session,” according to a response from the city communications office, “was held at a City Council Work Session that occurred on March 27, 2017, and not at a Utilities Board meeting; however, the records you have requested may not be disclosed pursuant to s. 24-72-204(3)(a)(IV), C.R.S., on the basis that they are privileged, attorney-client communications. Additionally, the City disagrees with your characterization of the closed executive session and your suggestion that adoption of a proposed policy or formal action occurred during the closed executive session. The City Council agenda containing the notice for the closed executive session and the minutes from that meeting are attached.”
Here’s the agenda item:
In accord with City Charter art. III, § 3-60(d) and its incorporated Colorado Open Meetings Act, C.R.S. § 24-6-402(4)(b) and (e), the City Council, in Open Session, is to determine whether it will hold a Closed Executive Session. The issues to be discussed involve: (1) legal advice and consultation with the City Attorney regarding a pending litigation and enforcement matter; (2) legal advice and consultation with the City Attorney regarding settlement of litigation related to the Colorado Open Records Act; and (3) legal advice and consultation with the City Attorney regarding a Draft Position Statement implementing Position Statement 16-01 issued by the State Independent Ethics Commission.
As the city’s response noted, the Business Journal requested meeting records because there was a high likelihood that political, not legal, decisions were made or ratified during the executive session.
The city’s claim that “[no] adoption of a proposed policy or formal action occurred during the closed executive session” seems particularly disingenuous. After the session, the city attorney quickly sent an 11-page formal complaint to New York state authorities requesting that Weise be sanctioned. Had city council nixed the proposal during the session, no such complaint would have been filed.
Was there a vote? Was there a discussion? Who proposed the action? Who supported it? Who opposed it? We’ll never know.
This is an example of government in the shadows, operating with a wink and a nod.
The federal government eventually declassifies even the most highly classified documents, but apparently not the city. In the recent past, many decisions regarding the original botched U.S. Olympic Committee retention deal were apparently made or ratified in closed session, as were decisions about the Public Employees Retirement Association lawsuit.
The Business Journal sent a letter to the mayor and city council asking these questions:
· Is there a formal policy/process for releasing records of closed sessions? And if not, why not?
· Have any such records ever been released? And if so, when?
· Do records of such meetings exist, or are they deleted/discarded/shredded after a defined period?
City council and the CSU meet in open session five times monthly or about 60 times annually. A rough estimate indicates there are, appended to meeting agendas, about 20 closed sessions.
That adds up to hundreds of such sessions in recent decades. There’s enormous potential for abuse, shortcuts, deal-making and for vengeful actions.
In government, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Maybe it’s long past time to fling open the council chamber windows, and let the light pour in.