The conflict over a lack of transparency at Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission came to a head Thursday when Colorado Ethics Watch set up a live video feed to allow the public, at least in Denver, to watch and listen to the commission’s meeting.
That didn’t sit well with Commission Chair Bill Leone, who directed the group to shut down the broadcast.
Leone said he was uncomfortable with a third party recording the meeting, raising the possibility that the video could be selectively edited – a concern echoed by fellow commission member and former state Sen. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins.
Ethics Watch Senior Counsel Peg Perl explained that Periscope, the internet broadcast system the group was using, doesn’t allow for video editing, but Leone insisted that she turn off the feed anyway. Perl shut it down about an hour into the meeting.
She pointed out that nothing in the commission’s rules prohibit a third party from broadcasting its public proceedings. “I’m happy to work with you,” she told the commission. “I’d prefer you do your own transparency.”
She noted that the commission has been talking for two years about the broadcast issue, but has done nothing to make meetings more accessible to the public.
Addressing Leone’s third-party concern, Perl pointed out that television news crews and members of the public have recorded audio and video at the commission meetings in the past.
Citizens who want to know what goes on at ethics commission meetings have no choice but to be there and record the meetings themselves. The commission doesn’t post recordings of its meetings on its website, and its meeting minutes are little more than lists of the agenda and official commission action. Unlike those of most government agencies, the ethics commission’s minutes don’t provide any detail on commission discussions of agenda items.
Perl explained to the commission how Periscope, which is owned by Twitter, works, and pointed out that other government agencies use the service to broadcast their meetings and events.
The Commission has had 18 months and a state grant to set up livestreaming of its meetings. The excuse for the delay is that the previous executive director didn’t know how to use the equipment and that it needed another staff hire to do that.
That hire could have come on board 18 months ago, except that the previous executive director, Amy DeVan, told the Joint Budget Committee they didn’t need a second staff person.
Leone asserted that if the commission were to livestream its meetings, it would need a policy about it.
That’s just more stonewalling, said Luis Toro of Ethics Watch, who says he’s unaware of any government body that has a policy on how it broadcasts its meetings.
The commission has never before brought up the need for such a policy, Toro said. He pointed out that the commission has “previously let other groups that aren’t Ethics Watch broadcast without raising these concerns.”
“It’s a public meeting and it’s shouldn’t matter” who’s broadcasting, he said.
Toro also noted that DeVan undermined the commission’s budget request by rejecting funding for a second staff person who could have set up the livestreaming equipment the commission bought last year. It’s still sitting in boxes, Leone said Thursday.
The question of livestream is just one more in a series of transparency problems with the commission. In March, the state auditor released a scathing report that found the commission didn’t keep recordings of minutes of its meetings and lacked proper recordkeeping about ethics complaints.
Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver told The Colorado Independent that he wanted to put more money into the commission budget to handle the staffing issue. Steadman is a member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which reviews budget requests by state agencies.
“I’m appalled and embarrassed for the commission,” he said today. “I question whether this is worth the trouble and expense.”
There’s nothing the JBC can do to force the commission to adhere to the state’s open records and open meetings laws, according to Steadman.
Last spring, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the commission in a dispute with Ethics Watch over “frivolous complaints” and whether there was any avenue for appeal once the commission that a complaint is frivolous.
Steadman noted that the court decision said the commission is independent and no one controls it. The state Constitution merely says the General Assembly shall appropriate money to the commission for its operations
“I don’t know there’s much we can do” to force them to be transparent, Steadman lamented.
He questions whether the commission is even needed. “I know voters wanted it but I’d be surprised if even 5 percent of the voters care about it.”
The Center for Public Integrity gave Colorado an “F” for its ethics enforcement agency last November. The Center also graded Colorado with an “F” on public access to information.
Photo credit:Alan Levine, Creative Commons, Flickr