The Colorado Court of Appeals says public boards can vote in secret.
The court on Thursday agreed with the Fort Morgan City Council, which was sued after members cast secret ballots to fill vacancies on their own board. The board also voted secretly to appoint a municipal judge.
The judges said that nothing in Colorado’s open-meetings laws prohibit the practice.
State lawmakers were shocked at the ruling and said they would work to change the law if the ruling stands.
State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said politicians vote and stand for re-election based on what they do.
“It’s pretty unexpected that the court would find you can do that. It’s so contrary to the normal way of doing business,” he said.
Fort Morgan’s attorney argued that the open-meetings law doesn’t impose specific voting procedures on local public bodies. The attorney said it only requires that the public have access to meetings and be able to observe the decision-making process.
Fort Morgan City Council held open meetings in which they interviewed candidates for council vacancies and allowed residents to respond. When they voted, they wrote their choices down on slips of paper and people attending the meetings were not told how individual members voted.
City spokesman John Brennan said decisions on policy and budget matters are always public and city council members had nothing to hide.
The ruling was issued after city resident Ronald Henderson sued. His attorney, Christopher Beall, said the decision could be devastating to representative government.
Many controversial decisions, including a school board’s firing of a superintendent or the Public Utilities Commission’s approval of a new power plant, could be shielded from public view, he said.