Media Opinions Split on Two Closed-Door Government Meetings

Denver media recently carried harsh words against three members of the Denver City Council who attended a closed-door meeting between a labor union and business contractor to observe negotiations between the two entities.

However, there was no criticism in the media when Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and members of his administration met in a closed-door meeting with business interests to discuss pending state ballot measures.The hubbub started when Denver council representatives Paul Lopez, Chris Nevitt and Doug Linkhart privately met with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and city vendor Standard Parking to obtain more information about a proposed $70 million contract at Denver International Airport.

Although both Lopez and Nevitt have ties to labor groups that go back before they were elected (Lopez actually used to work for the SEIU), all three council members maintained that they were not participating in negotiations between the labor union and Standard Parking.

In opinion pieces, the trio was accused of disrespecting the state’s open meetings law, which regulates what state and local gatherings are open to the public.

The Denver Post questioned whether the council representatives were “meddling in contract negotiations” and opined that “council members ought to stay out of contract negotiations and hold meetings about city business in public. Appearances matter, especially where the public trust is concerned. “

Another opinion columnist for The Rocky Mountain News questioned if the Denver City Hall had been formally renamed the “Denver Union Hall,” and stated that the trio “seemingly functioned as informal negotiators on the union’s behalf during a recent meeting with labor leaders and Standard Parking executives.”

Colorado laws define open meetings as any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business. For state governmental bodies, meetings are described as gatherings that are attended by two or more public officials, while for local bodies, meetings are defined as a quorum, or three or more public officials, whichever is fewer. Chance meetings or social gatherings where public business is not the central purpose are not open to the public under state law.

Such meetings apply to any board, committee, or other policy-making body of any state agency, state authority, public or private entity to which the state, or an official thereof, has delegated a governmental decision-making, according to the law.

It was reported this week by The Rocky Mountain News that at least three members of Ritter’s administration were present during a closed-door meeting between the governor and business representatives who support a right-to-work ballot measure. The gathering was reportedly held to get supporters of a statewide right-to-work ballot initiative to back away from their push to put the legislation up for a vote.

The right-to-work proposal would make it harder for labor unions to organize in the state, and in response unions have filed their own measures for the 2008 ballot that would put stronger regulations on businesses.

Despite the fact that the Ritter meeting took place about a week after the media brought up such criticisms regarding the city council members, there were apparently no questions about Ritter meddling in the ballot initiative process, not being transparent enough with state business or playing the role as a negotiator between two dueling interests–a clear contrast in media opinions on two similar meetings held by different interest groups.

The opinion pieces, or lack of them, follow a harsh front-page editorial in The Sunday Denver Post in November, calling Ritter “a toady for labor bosses” and referring to the governor as “Jimmy Hoffa” because of an executive order giving state workers collective-bargaining rights. Newspaper databases showed that it was only the third front-page editorial in the Post in the past decade.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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