Culture of openness celebrated by journalists

As religious traditions around the world honor the significant holidays this time of year brings, there arises an opportunity for reflection on what those holidays mean, what traditions they embody and what message those traditions carry for celebrants.

Easter and Passover are among the holiest of holidays, given the significance each event had in history – and has had for Christians and Jews thereafter. While not steeped in the divine – intervention or otherwise – those of us of the journalistic persuasion are on the heels of a similar time of celebrating our values: Sunshine Week.

This annual recognition of the public’s right to know the business of its government does not possess the soul-saving characteristics that religious traditions can provide their supplicants. Nevertheless, the guarantee of access to information about how decisions get made on the public’s behalf is itself a testament to another religion of sorts, albeit one devoid of much spiritual value: pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

It is from this perspective that the journalistic profession operates and the dogma dictates that those in positions of power ought to be compelled to share their knowledge with those who empower them. That fundamental belief is embodied in Colorado statute through open meetings and open-records laws compelling elected and appointed officials to provide access to their decision-making processes and documents. By doing so, everyone is armed with knowledge and, therefore, protected against abuse of power. Or at least that is how it should go.

As with most things, religious or otherwise, there is much nuance associated with the practical implications of these laws – those governing open meetings in particular – and in discussing those implications with several past elected and administrative officials, the relevance of position and perspective became blindingly clear.

From the journalism side – the one I am most qualified to speak to – the underlying principle is practically religious. Ours is a watchdog role, and in order to keep watch, we need to be able to see: what is being read, said and decided. That is fundamental belief does not necessarily connote suspicion, skepticism or cynicism – though that stuff may well exist in individual journalists, or even large groups of us; that is a different matter and a far more pathological one – it really amounts to nothing more than nosiness. We want to know what is going on. And then we want to tell other people about it. And for those of lucky enough to be opinion journalists, we want to tell everyone what we think about it. Talk about obnoxious.

While public officials may well agree that we in the media are obnoxious, there seems to be a somewhat different reaction to open-meetings requirements than that which journalists possess. In our recent discussion, former county commissioners, school board members, city councilors and city managers from across the political spectrum – although admittedly weighted to the left – were united in their commitment to following open-meetings laws, but were also aware that the letter and the spirit of those laws were different animals. If I had a nickel for every time that issue arises locally, statewide and nationally, I would be a Supreme Court justice. But I digress.

Executive session called for legitimate purposes, for example, can and do easily slip into discussions that should be held openly. This sidetracking is understandable; look how many directions this column has gone and I have the benefit of time and editors. It is also illegal. That framework can be exasperating for decision-makers and journalists alike, but it does not make it any less important.

Perhaps the most heather of the gray areas in open-meetings laws are those concerning personnel matters. Certainly public employees have a right to a degree of privacy when it comes to their job performance, and when elected or appointed officials are discussing those matters, it is acceptable that those conversations take place behind closed doors, unless the employee requests a public forum. In the interest of protecting individuals’ privacy, though, decision-makers seem to universally err on the wrong side of open meetings laws. Hiring decisions made by governing boards do not technically concern personnel if the individual is not yet on the public payroll, are public, but too often not treated that way. Our panel of decision-makers emeriti agreed that this was an unclear area of the law. It also happens to be one over which the Herald is now engaged in litigation.

Ultimately, the laws governing open meetings and open records serve to protect everyone involved. Public officials get cover for having made their decisions in the light of day, making any backroom dealings that do go on fair game for journalists to expose. For our part, journalists are given legal authority to be the public’s busybody neighbor, passing along the latest news – and saving you all from having to attend endless public meetings. That alone is worth celebrating.

But more important is the notion that public officials are by and large committed to following open meetings and open-records laws, and when they run afoul of them, learn from the mistake. That growing body of knowledge and awareness can only serve to reinforce the culture of openness that should – and mostly does – govern those who govern.

meg@durangoherald.com. Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst.