On July 22, Colorado Springs City Councilors Joel Miller, Don Knight and Andy Pico met as the Colorado Springs Utilities Budget and Finance Committee. They talked about emission controls, the Southern Delivery System water pipeline, rate increases, corporate sponsorships and community giving.
None of that is a secret: The Finance Committee kept minutes of the meeting. The same has been true of the Utilities Personnel Committee, also composed of Council members.
But Council subcommittees outside Utilities have been more lax. No documentation that minutes were kept of those panels of Council members are available, and Council officials admit no minutes were taken.
Since 1991, local governments have been subject to Colorado's Open Meetings Law, because, as asserted by the Legislature at the time, the "formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret."
According to that law, notices must be posted 24 hours in advance if a meeting is to be attended by a quorum or three or more members (whichever is fewer) who will discuss public business or take formal action. If officials adopt a proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or take formal action, the law states, minutes must be kept.
Council seems to be aware of this requirement and goes so far as to post such things as orientation sessions and public gatherings, like a dedication ceremony at Fort Carson in May where three or more Councilors might have chosen to attend.
But the City Attorney's Office says minutes aren't required of subcommittees — in conflict with the opinions of a former government attorney and an attorney general's opinion, which say it all depends on what happens at the meetings.
Two Councilors blame the failure to keep minutes on a staff shortage, but the law contains no exemption for compliance based on lack of resources. And Councilor Jan Martin says that generally, "More transparency rather than less should be our goal."
Like a legislature
Former state Sen. Keith King was elected in April, then named Council president. Within weeks, he began reshaping Council into a mini-legislature. He created subcommittees, he said then, to let citizens comment on city matters outside of full Council meetings, just like in the Legislature.
For Utilities, for which Council serves as the board of directors, King formed three subcommittees: Budget and Finance, Personnel, and Strategic Planning; on the city side, he formed subcommittees for Budget and Strategic Planning, Office of City Council Staff, and Boards and Commissions, according to a list provided by Council communications specialist Vicki Gomes. (Miller says the list is wrong, listing him as being on a subcommittee on which he doesn't serve.)
But because "there are no minutes," as stated in an email by Gomes, it's unclear who has attended, what was discussed, and whether any decisions were made.
"There is no requirement in the City Charter, the open meetings act as adopted in the City Charter or the Council Rules that minutes be kept of the meetings of sub-committees of the Council or of President's committees," Britt Haley, an attorney in the City Attorney's Office, writes in an email.
King says, also via email, that as Council evolves, "We will also continue to make the appropriate decisions as to what committees we will post and take minutes in."
Former El Paso County Attorney Bill Louis, who advised county commissioners for nearly a decade on disclosure laws, says any action would trigger the need for minutes, including a subcommittee deciding upon a recommendation for Council — which would seem a chief reason for having a subcommittee.
Indeed, going back to the July 22 Utilities Budget and Finance Committee meeting, the minutes note that Miller "directed that a policy be drafted that future request for funds from the city go through Finance Committee and/or Board."
In a 1993 legal opinion, former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton noted that "an official action not listed in the statute would still trigger the recording requirement." She then added, "Statutory requirements aside, however, it is clear that minutes should be taken whenever feasible. They are the chief means by which most citizens can ascertain the activities of local public bodies."
Short on bodies
Knight chairs the five-Councilor city Budget and Strategic Planning subcommittee, and says it's met two or three times. (Posting records show it has met four times, most recently July 26.) But the committee doesn't keep minutes. While Knight insists they're not making decisions, he says subcommittee members are "discussing what we want to write into the [strategic] plan."
Says Louis, "These groups are meeting for the ultimate purpose of making recommendations to City Council about future policy direction. Stated another way, not conducting these meetings in accordance with the open meetings law is, in my opinion, illegal."
Asked why minutes are kept by Utilities subcommittees but not city ones, Knight says Council simply doesn't have enough staff on the city side. That's "a legitimate concern," Miller says, "because without it, simple things like posting meetings, agendas and minutes become huge tasks."
Council had four staff members before a Council assistant resigned in April. Then, in June, Administrator Aimee Cox left for a job with Mayor Steve Bach. Her position wasn't filled until Aug. 13. Two openings are yet unfilled: legislative analyst and an assistant to Council.
But boosting staff resources may not change how some Councilors apparently view the subcommittees. At least one subcommittee has yet to hold its first meeting, while at least one Councilor, Val Snider, says, "I just haven't attended any of them."
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