Ethics commission says it won’t turn over recordings of secret meetings

The state’s top ethics panel formally denied a request for recordings of 14 secret meetings held this year that The Colorado Independent alleges violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law.

The Independent is seeking access to audiotapes or minutes of closed-door sessions held between January 14 and April 21 by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, arguing they are public records because the secret enclaves were illegally convened.

In a response sent via e-mail Friday afternoon, the commission’s executive director, Jane Feldman, wrote:

The Independent Ethics Commission (“IEC”) has received your Colorado Open Records Act request dated May 5, 2009. The IEC hereby denies your request. All recordings and minutes of Executive Sessions are confidential and exempt from the Colorado Open Records Act pursuant to C.R.S. S 24-6-402(2)(d.5)(I)(D).

In all, the ethics commission has met behind closed doors for roughly 85 percent of the time this year, including time spent in “deliberations” on a complaint filed against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman that alleged he had conflicts of interest when he served as secretary of state. The commission dismissed the complaint against Coffman in an 18-page ruling issued after numerous closed sessions.

“To deliberate behind closed doors and issue [an 18-page] ruling — that’s an obvious, plain and unambiguous violation of the Open Meetings Law,” said Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney who specializes in First Amendment law. “Even if it’s properly convened, they cannot reach a decision, they cannot adopt a position in executive session.”

Zansberg pointed to state courts rulings that say merely voting in public on matters decided in secret amounts to “rubber-stamping” and is no defense against charges a public body violated the Open Meetings Law.

In its request for records of the closed-door sessions, the Independent argued the commission didn’t properly convene its executive sessions, either. State law requires that a public board announce specifically what will be discussed in closed-door session, cite relevant statutes and then hold a recorded vote with two-thirds of its members agreeing to go behind closed doors.

“Colorado courts have held three separate times that when a public body fails to strictly adhere to procedural requirements, and doesn’t adequately announce the topic to be discussed in executive session, then it didn’t have an executive session that was closed to the public, it had an illegal meeting that was closed to the public,” Zansberg said.

The state ethics commission was created by voters in 2006 with the approval of Amendment 41, sold as a measure to increase accountability and transparency in government. The five-member commission is responsible for investigating ethical violations and enforcing ethical standards for public officials and government employees.

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