Nothing like a little sunshine to help throw some light on some wrong.
There was no shortage of wrong a few weeks ago when the majority of Aurora City Council members took a three-day junket to Washington D.C. to discuss how the federal government might do more for our local one.
It’s Sunshine Week, folks. That time of year when newspapers like the Sentinel draw your attention to the important work we and other newsrooms do to ensure an open and accountable government. Rather than talk about hypotheticals, let’s talk about reality.
Seven city lawmakers and the city manager really did tour a variety of beltway federal agencies and congressional officials to talk city business in what was not only a clear violation of Colorado open meeting laws, but a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Adding insult to injury, city lawmakers got all shy about Sentinel allegations that they met illegally in Washington Feb. 12- Feb. 14. City legal and communication officials, however, defended the meetings. In a story by Sentinel reporter Kara Mason, officials absurdly said that no “public business” was discussed on the trip. It was a junket slated, supposedly, for the sole purpose of discussing with federal officials issues focusing on housing, Buckley Air Force Base, transportation and other federal grants and problems in Aurora.
The alternative facts would be that taxpayers ponied up about $8,000 for a three-day wingding in D.C. for a little good-old-fashioned beltway socializing, and nary mention of city business. That’s the spin, seeing how it would be illegal for more than two city officials to meet for the purpose of discussing city affairs without first announcing the meeting and allowing for the public for attend.
That didn’t happen.
The Sentinel checked to see if these potential meetings, apparently all across Washington, were posted first at city hall in accordance with state open meetings laws. For the record, they were not, officials said.
Whether the illegal meetings truly were born of ignorance or were a deliberate end-run around open-government laws, or a wasteful, publicly funded boondoggle, they were wrong. Aurora pays tens of thousands of dollars a year to a hired lobbyist for the sole purpose of representing its interests at state and federal levels. What’s more, newly elected Congressman Jason Crow has already implemented a program to meet directly with government officials all across his 6th Congressional District. Former Congressman Mike Coffman was no stranger to Aurora’s federal interests, nor was he indifferent to them. And senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner? They’ve got Aurora’s back.
Even if there were a need to beg — so dire that only a personal appeal to say, many, varied and unrelated federal agencies were compelling — it’s nothing less than expensive overkill to send nearly the entire city council to twist some arms and give Powerpoint presentations.
Also for the record, officials said such a large and expensive contingent was called for to tour the nation’s Capitol because they figured that way, Aurora would make a big impression.
No doubt more than one city official got all puffy about the Sentinel raining on their charade and pointed out, “Son, this is how business gets done.” If you didn’t hear that in your Tennessee Williams Big Daddy voice from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you missed the full effect.
All this, however, is why strong open meeting laws and a viable free press that enforces them is so important to an honest and accountable government.
They certainly impressed us and other open-meeting-law noodges, including Colorado Press Association attorney Steve Zansberg. He pointed out that open meeting laws exist for good reason. They prevent government officials from conducting city business in secret or, unthinkably, 1,600 miles away.
The law is invoked not just when there’s a quorum of an elected body, which there certainly was in this case, but when there are more than two officials. This important law affects elected leaders who might be cozy with anyone, or everyone, who provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations. It prevents them from meeting with a few electeds for dinner and drinks and working out the details of a housing development, a police union contract or even a federal block grant program that commits the city to anyone or anything.
Sure, let’s give these mistaken seven lawmakers the benefit of the doubt that they had nothing but the best of intentions to try and funnel federal funds into a line-item near you.
But Aurora, and almost all of Colorado, almost, is not rife with Chicago-style politics because the media and others take these laws seriously, and so should you.
Given the missing and, at best, eye-rolling response from city lawmakers and staffers over this transgression, it’s unlikely that anyone on the city dais will insist that someone at city hall police these kind of inappropriate and blatantly illegal confabs in the future.
The Sentinel will. Here and across the region, we’re determined to ensure that laws are followed that govern open records, open meetings and transparency in how the government works and spends tax dollars. It’s not just us, but thousands of newsrooms and noodges like us, insistent on transparency.
Sunshine Week is time for media across the country to draw attention to our watchdog roll in ensuring all this freedom of information, which is hardly free. The price we pay is vigilance. Journalism needs your support to continue being vigilant.
Take the time to read, respond to and patronize your local paper, its advertisers and sponsors. Don’t let the light go out. Without us, you’re on your own.