Of open meetings and closed governments

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From the Editor

By Doug Bell

Say what you will about Littleton resident Carol Brzeczek — just say it in public.

Brzeczek has been fighting the good fight for open government as a member of the “Sunshine Boys,” a grassroots organization which last fall spearheaded a successful citizen initiative that restricts the Littleton City Council’s ability to disappear behind closed doors to make public policy.
A former Littleton school board member, Brzeczek knows all about the tendency of government officials toward secrecy, and about the danger posed to democracy when our politicians drink this covert Kool-Aid.
It’s a lesson we’ve learned repeatedly in Jefferson County, from the Columbine coverup to repeated violations of the open-meetings law by previous county commissioners.
More recently, outraged calls for open government have been heard from the Jeffco school board minority, who were annoyed by the new majority’s efforts to hire a board lawyer in a hurried process outside of public view.
I personally have taken an inordinate amount of abuse for not joining the crusade to slam the new board majority for its lack of openness. But let me offer in my defense a case of battle fatigue brought on by an open-meetings skirmish with the board minority — while they were still in the majority. And let me also point out that my foes were led by — guess who? — their own attorney.
If your head is spinning, here’s a simplified moral for this twisted story: Government officials of all political stripes prefer to make policy in private, because it allows them to control information. And don’t ever doubt that information is power, especially when the policies being discussed involve the monied interests who often have the ear of governments, and fail to involve the little people — who rarely do.
That’s precisely why Colorado has an open-meetings law, which, simply enough, requires public policy to be made in public with a few exceptions. And that brings us back to Carol Brzezcek, who thought the Littleton council might be taking liberties with those loopholes.
The initiative approved by Littleton voters in November’s election says: “… Any final settlement or final agreement (of a legal dispute) shall be decided by a majority vote in a regular meeting of the City Council.”
Simple enough. But Ken Fellman, who gives legal advice to the city, is proposing that the council give the city attorney the authority to unilaterally settle legal disputes and appropriate settlement amounts. In other words, he’s proposing a loophole that will keep such settlements out of the public eye, apparently in direct opposition to the will of Littleton voters.
All this reminds me that the fight to keep governments open and honest is never-ending, forcing us to pick our battles and conserve our energy. But to the energetic Carol Brzeczek — who, by the way, is still waiting for a public response to her concerns about Littleton’s latest open-meetings loophole — I say this: Go, girl, go.

Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.