What makes government transparent?
That answer involves many, many layers of case law, legislation, expectation, ideology, opinion, awareness and even attitude — too many layers, in fact, to deliberate here.
In essence, it’s how expensive fees are for obtaining records, or how well minutes are recorded and kept, or how populated websites are with information, or how emails are exchanged among government officials, or how they conduct business in private, and everything in between. Transparency, or the lack of it, includes what isn’t recorded, or what may be hidden from our view.
It wasn’t easy, but the Sky-Hi News has conducted its first-ever Sunshine Audit in celebration of National Sunshine Week, held this week of March 16-22. The audit involved all incorporated towns in Grand County and Grand County government, as well as four major districts in the county: the two school districts, the hospital district, and the library district. The districts results will be published next week.
We took on this challenge for multiple reasons. We are hoping the project is enlightening to readers and empowers them to seek records and information at their disposal, educates them on how to get records, and informs them on how government is doing in terms of what should be expected. We also hope it will be informative to government boards and staff members themselves, seeing how counterparts in other towns and the county are doing in terms of record-keeping and transfer of information. Overall, we hope it results in transparency improvements in government practices for the betterment of our Grand County community as a whole, and we hope it influences citizens to become more engaged in governance that affects each and every one of us.
Since this is the first time we’ve embarked on this adventure, we decided early on to stick to basics of transparency. We tackled what we view as the first “layer.” We applied points to each of four categories, then assessed each government accordingly: government websites (30 points, plus 2 bonus points), meetings (30 points, plus 4 bonus points), budgets & financial (30 points) and the records request process (10 points).
We sought some guidance from Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, who helped us see the importance of some aspects of transparency we may have otherwise undervalued, such as records fees and the necessity for government websites to make more digital records available free of charge. We also sought the advice and opinions of “Sunshine Citizens” in Grand County, or citizens who don’t generally interact with government but care about what goes on. Six individuals answered our front-page “want ad” in the Sky-Hi News. The group mostly represented Grand Lake, Tabernash, Fraser and Granby, and during a two-hour focus-group session, provided us with much-appreciated insight. We also did our own research, consulting countless websites and writings.
But what the project revealed was that it was impossible to avoid subjectivity. When it comes to minutes and agendas, for example, we just know the good ones when we see them, especially when we lay them side-by-side on the newsroom floor and analyze them piece by piece — which the four of us (Managing Editor Tonya Bina, Photo Editor Byron Hetzler, and reporters Reid Tulley and Leia Larsen) indeed did. In the end, we drew on our collective experience as journalists who regularly observe these elements of government, ranging from the transparent to the not-so-transparent. For each government entity, we then arrived at a grade.
We tackled what we view as the first “layer” of transparency, and we applied points to each of four categories, then assessed each government accordingly: government websites (30 points, plus 2 bonus), meetings (30 points, plus 4 bonus), budgets & financial (30 points) and records (10 points).
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Websites are one of government’s best tools for transparency. Technology and the Internet have evolved to a point where it’s easy to put minutes, agendas, budgets, records and contact information right at the fingertips of voters. “One can imagine the frustration of a citizen who is used to shopping, banking, and reading news online, when a government website not only does not post the public record that she is interested in, but does not include information as to how to request that record through the Colorado Open Records Act,” notes Colorado Ethics Watch in “21st Century Sunshine: Modernizing CORA.” For our assessment, we required minutes, agendas and budgets for the past three years to be posted and easy to find. We required public notification to be posted in areas easy to find as well. We also required personalized contact information for key staff and elected officials. Elected officials are directly accountable to the people, and should be easy to contact. Lastly, we looked for each town’s and the county’s procedure for requesting public records, and required that fees for record searches be published. This allows for consistency, no matter who the requester is.
While many towns posted the open records request forms under their clerk’s page, we found during our focus group that many novice records requesters are unfamiliar with how this procedure is handled. Thus, we feel this information must be easy to find and clearly explained with its own page or a link on the website homepage.
To determine meetings transparency, we evaluated agendas, meeting minutes and frequency of executive sessions. We asked town clerks to select 12 sets of agendas and minutes in odd then even months over the past two years. We also asked clerks to supply us with the number of town or county board executive sessions over the past five years. We divided this number by the total number of board meetings to come up with a percentage of how many meetings include executive sessions. We then requested the meeting minutes that included the town or county’s last five executive sessions so we could determine their legal justification for executive sessions and evaluate any public discussion before or after the executive sessions.
Budget and Financial
Budgets and financial records provide important transparency on how taxpayers’ funds are managed. But reading documents rife with numbers and accounting jargon can be intimidating to the general public. With each budget, we looked for an executive summary that helps readers make sense of the figures in plain language. We also looked for graphs and charts that explain trends, comparisons of the current budget with past years, and navigational tools like a tables of contents and sections with clear headings. We also asked clerks to provide us with detailed expense reports, where we looked for detail on checks issued, invoice numbers, payment amounts, to whom the payment was made and specific information on what the payment was for.
Finally, we evaluated each town and the county on the public records request we filed to complete this project. We first looked at the fees each municipality charges for open records requests. Federal law specifically says government agencies can only charges 25 cents per page for copies. Generally, records sent via email or downloaded from a website are free of charge. Fees for staff “research and retrieval” are much more cloudy. According to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, the Colorado Court of Appeals has upheld that a “reasonable” research and retrieval fee is up to $25 per hour. House Bill 1193, as currently written, has been introduced to the Senate and would establish a research and retrieval fee cap at $32 per hour, or four-times the current state minimum wage.
“Many government custodians view Colorado Open Records Act requests as bothersome distractions that take resources away from the ‘real’ work of the agencies,” notes Colorado Ethics Watch, “while requestors and government watchdogs generally contend that public records created and maintained using public funds have already been paid for and it is part of government’s job to respond to document requests from members of the public.”
We believe our Sunshine Project requests were in the realm of basic records that every clerk or finance manager should easily have at his or her disposal, with little research required.
Overall, we encourage all governments to clearly publish fees and the public-records request process on government websites with as much detail as possible, and we encourage governments to post as many records as possible online. This would serve to reduce the number of basic records requests that can monopolize government staff time, and it would also serve to alleviate the need to charge citizens outlandish fees for “research and retrieval.”
“When Colorado Open Records Act fees price out not only most citizens seeking access to public records, but also the media, ordinary citizens suffer. Transparency in government is too important to be limited to a handful of groups or individuals who can afford to pay charges for time spent disclosing documents about public business,” notes Colorado Ethics Watch.
We also provided a score on how long it took each clerk to complete our request, which by Colorado Freedom of Information means they should respond within three working days unless extenuating circumstances call for seven days. We then checked whether the documents delivered were complete according to the directions in our request.
Quotes from Focus Group
“They’re so wonderfully short and uninformative.”—Jane Mather, Fraser resident, on Fraser Board of Trustee minutes
“There has to be a way to differentiate who voted which way … we need to get a sense of the flavor of what’s happening in meetings.”—Paul Robertson, Granby resident
“I expect to have access to everything, except personnel issues.”—Scott Huff, Grand Lake resident, on government websites
“I want insight into the decision-making process. I want to see the sausage getting made.”—Paul Robertson
“Most of us speak plain English, and that’s what we want to see.”—Chris Bergquist, Tabernash resident, on reading government documents
“You cannot conduct the people’s business in secret, period. That’s something we should push for.”—Scott Huff, Grand Lake resident, on executive sessions
“You can’t manipulate the process by how you define the nature of the meeting, the process is the process.”—Paul Robertson
“Why hold a meeting at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when the general public wants to be there, and should be there?”—Diane Mahoney, Grand Lake resident, on town’s ‘workshops’
And here are the grades:
Grand Lake: D-
WEBSITE (24.5 ) — Grand Lake was docked for only posting their current agenda, only their current budget, for not having personalized phone numbers for any staff officials, and for not having phone numbers or personalized emails for elected officials. We also subtracted points for not naming the staff responsible for handling public records requests. We did feel their budgets, financial records and meeting minutes were easy to find. The town’s website also has a calendar that’s easy to find and includes public meetings. We like that the town posts board meeting packets.
MEETINGS (11.5) — We were disappointed that Grand Lake only provided us with the current agenda, and we docked substantial points for this. However, the one agenda provided some of the most thorough detail, which gives the public a strong sense of discussions and action items involving potentially important topics and issues. We particularly appreciate that agenda includes page numbers for related information in the packet presented to board members. The agenda does not list the place or address of the meeting, which can be a hassle for first-time meeting attendees. We appreciated they call the public comment period “citizen participation,” which makes it clear to first-time or occasional meeting attendees that this is their time to speak with elected officials. It could include clearer instructions for comment, however.
Meeting minutes were also thorough and written similar to a transcript, but Grand Lake lost out on bonus points because it does not make draft minutes available to citizens.
Grand Lake is skirting true transparency by holding the bulk of trustee discussions during afternoon workshops, which are never recorded and where minutes are never taken. The workshops take place regularly before the official meetings take place. This especially struck a nerve with our focus group, as it does for the rest of us who champion government transparency. While this procedure is legal under Colorado’s Sunshine laws, we still believe it violates the spirit of the law, so we subtracted substantial points. According to the town, the meetings have been conducted this way for decades, and it is a way to limit the town’s night meeting from being too lengthy.
Roughly 28.7 percent of Grand Lake’s public meetings include executive sessions, which is comparatively low in the county. Nearly all these sessions, however, occur during the unrecorded workshops, so there are no minutes immediately prior to or after them. We couldn’t determine their legal rationale for holding executive sessions or any public discussion before or after the sessions.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (20) — Grand Lake’s budget has a good executive summary, with information helping readers make sense of trends. It also includes explanations for 2014 revenue, and the budget spreadsheet provides comparisons since 2011. It doesn’t have a table of contents or navigational tools and it doesn’t have charts or graphs. The expense reports are sufficiently thorough.
Records (4.5) — The town of Grand Lake charges $50 an hour for research and retrieval, well above the established “reasonable” rate. We appreciate that the town waived our fee because our research was for “educational purposes,” but feel this hefty fee could deter individuals from requesting public records. The town clerk responded quickly, but only partially fulfilled our request, leaving out meeting minutes that included executive sessions because they may not exist, and the number of total meetings the town has held in the past five years.
WEBSITE (27.5) — Granby only has its meetings and minutes posted since 2013, and only its current budget posted. We like that it posts the board meeting packet. The open records procedure, fees and contact information are posted on the town clerk’s page, but we subtracted a point because it was fairly difficult to find. We appreciated the fact that the town mayor listed her cell phone number along with contact information. All staff and elected officials had personalized contact information, although only about half of the board of trustees had their phone numbers listed.
MEETINGS (30.5) — Granby had in our view the best agendas and minutes. The detail on upcoming discussion and action items was very clear and detailed, written in plain language that’s easy to understand. We felt the agenda made the upcoming meeting easy to understand for those unfamiliar with public meetings. The public comment period was easy to find and included instructions. The estimated times for each discussion item were also listed. The only area for improvement is for the town to list the place and address of the meeting.
The minutes read almost like a transcript. While some in our focus group found the amount of detail overwhelming, we feel this thoroughness provides clear insight to the meeting discussion and proceedings. Votes are clearly set apart with bold type, and each trustee’s vote is listed.
About 40 percent of Granby’s meetings include executive sessions, which is on the high side for the county. The minutes before and after the sessions provide good legal rationale and a general discussion of what went on, so the public isn’t left entirely in the dark.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (17) — Granby’s budget is hard to navigate. It doesn’t have a table of contents or navigational tools, and the executive summary is a long body of text that’s difficult to scan through to find specific information about different funds. Bolded headings, bullets and section breaks would be helpful. The budget spreadsheets use color coding to call out specific numbers, but it’s confusing to figure out what the different colors mean. The spreadsheets provide budget comparisons back to 2012. The expense reports provide good information, but could be more specific information on dates payments were made and check numbers.
RECORDS (9) — The town’s open records form says the research fee is $35 an hour, although the town clerk said she typically only charges $25. The town did not charge us for our request. The town had the quickest response to our request, and provided all requested records.
WEBSITE (8) — Kremmling’s score really suffered from not having public information posted on its website. At the time of our research, Kremmling had posted minutes since 2013 and only its current agenda. It has no budget posted, although we appreciate it has a page specifically posting expenditures for the current year. The website lists names of key staff and elected officials, but provides no individual contact information. We found no open records request information, including procedures, fees and contact information. At the time of our research, there was no notification of the next public meeting, the only notification we found was for a meeting which had already occurred. We asked Kremmling Town Manager Mark Campbell about the town’s website and learned the town had updated its website three months prior to make it more user-friendly. Campbell said it was likely that during the upgrade, several documents did not get re-posted. We did find that the website was relatively easy to navigate, and the locations for minutes and agendas easy to find.
MEETINGS (18.5) — While Kremmling’s minutes were pretty good, it has, by far, the most bare-bones agenda. We would have preferred to see more detail in the Kremmling minutes as well, but our focus group found them easy to read and felt they provided sufficient information. The board’s action items were clearly called out. We couldn’t find a case of a trustee dissenting, so it’s not clear if trustee specific votes would be called out in the minutes.
Roughly 3 percent of Kremmling’s board meetings include executive sessions, an excellent percentage in terms of transparency. The only minutes we saw that included a session have a clear legal rationale.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (25) — If Kremmling’s budget included graphs and charts, it would have some of the best financial documents in the county. The executive summary is easy to read and also functions like a table of contents. Figures and dollar amounts are in bold and easy to locate within the summary. The budget spreadsheets provide comparison with the past three years. The town’s expense report is excellent, including payments, dates, check numbers, to whom the payment was made and why.
RECORDS (5.5) — Kremmling doesn’t publish its fees anywhere, but the town clerk said the charge is between $24.94 and $43.21 an hour. Some of these fees are well above the reasonable rate. While the town’s response to our records request was timely, it was only partially fulfilled, leaving out past agendas and the total number of public meetings over the last five years. The town did not charge us for our request.
Hot Sulphur Springs: D-
WEBSITE (16) — The town’s website has no budget or financial records posted, and only has minutes and agendas since 2012. The meeting documents were easy to find, and meeting notifications were easy to find on the town calendar page. The town doesn’t include a procedure for requesting public records, fees or contact information for the person responsible for handling requests. The website does list all the town’s staff and elected officials, but we couldn’t find personalized contact information for elected officials. We particularly appreciated the fact Hot Sulphur Springs lists the terms for all their elected officials, and we gave them a bonus point for this. All municipalities should strive for this type of online transparency on elected offices.
MEETINGS (25) — Overall, Hot Sulphur Springs did a great job with their agendas. We appreciate the fact that they include specific dollar amounts in budget items listed in the agendas. The town’s agenda was one of only a few that include the time, place and address of the meeting. We would like to see them list the specific times agenda items will be discussed.
The meeting minutes lacked detail. Minutes only included a very general description of trustees’ discussion. Voting, however, was clearly called out with caps. We couldn’t find a case of a trustee dissenting, so it’s not clear if specific votes would be called out.
Hot Sulphur Springs had one of the lowest cases of executive sessions, which amounted to only 12 percent of all their meetings in the past five years. The minutes including these sessions generally had good legal rationale and discussion before and after the session, although this was inconsistent.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (11) — Hot Sulphur Springs’s financials were difficult to navigate. The budget doesn’t have an executive summary, table of contents or navigational tools. The budget spreadsheets were broken up by accounts within each fund, which was helpful, but this could’ve been clearer with bold headings or colors. The town’s expense reports also don’t include to whom payments are made or what they’re for.
RECORDS (9) — We couldn’t find information about fees anywhere on the town’s website. We managed to track down the information through the town clerk. Hot Sulphur charges $15 an hour for “routine” requests for “search and retrieval” and $25 an hour for “voluminous” requests. Retrieval of off-site records has a charge of $20 an hour minimum. Hot Sulphur did not charge us for our request.
WEBSITE (19.5) — We are disappointed the town of Fraser only posts a current agenda. It does not post past minutes or agendas, and we urge the town to start providing this information for the benefit of its citizens. We do commend the town for posting the board meeting packet online. The town only lists the current budget and no expenditures. It lists elected officials, but does not provide any contact information for these individuals. All key staff are listed with personalized contact information. When available, Fraser’s public documents were fairly easy to find and the website was easy to navigate, however, we again emphasize their need to post minutes and past agendas. The town clerk’s page includes a public records request form, with straightforward instructions and fees listed. We found this information somewhat difficult to find, however.
MEETINGS (23) — We appreciate Fraser’s minutes include estimated times for discussion and action items in some agendas, but this wasn’t consistent. Overall, the agendas were clear and provide useful details. The public comment period is listed as an “open forum,” with no instructions for public comment, which we found confusing. We like that the agendas list upcoming meetings.
The town’s minutes are not very detailed or thorough. They only have general descriptions of the trustees’ discussions. Votes are clearly called out with bold type, however, and there’s a voting breakdown of each trustee when votes aren’t unanimous.
Fraser has the worse record of executive sessions in the county, with 55 percent of its public meetings including executive sessions over the past five years. We asked why. “Most were related to complex Byers Peak Ranch annexation negotiations and some were related to the Colorado Cooperative Agreement when attorneys were explaining the town’s position related to water matters,” said Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin. Negotiating a significant agreement like that in open meeting, he said, would be like “a husband and wife (as prospective house or car buyers) talking about their financial information in front of the house seller or the car dealer.”
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (27) — Fraser had a good user-friendly budget with plenty of graphs, charts and clear explanations. The budget had page numbers and bolded figures that made it easy to navigate. Language in the executive summary was easy to understand, and the budget spreadsheets provided comparisons with past years. The town’s expense reports are good, but don’t include check numbers or what specific payments are for.
RECORDS (9) — Fraser does an excellent job listing fees on its Freedom of Information Act form. The form includes a comprehensive fee schedule. Research fees for non-management staff are $20 an hour, within the reasonable range, but fees for management research time are quite high. The town quickly and adequately fulfilled our records request and did not charge us.
Winter Park: B-
WEBSITE (24.5) — Winter Park did an excellent job posting past minutes agendas for the past three years, and we like that it posts the board meeting packets. We also appreciate that its current and past budgets are posted under the finance department page, but we felt it was somewhat difficult to find this information. The town could improve by posting its budget on the homepage. While the town posted a comprehensive financial report and sales tax report, it did not post current expenditures. The town’s website lists its elected officials with personalized emails, but it does not include phone numbers. It does include personalized contact information for all key staff. While meetings are generally explained on the website, specific dates for meetings were difficult to find. Winter Park’s public records request procedure is published under the town clerk’s page, but it’s also tricky to find, and fees are not published.
MEETINGS (19) — The town’s agendas are among the best. They include useful detail and list the place and address of the meetings at the top. We do wish they’d provide estimated times for each agenda item.
We docked substantial points on the town’s minutes. While they often provide a breakdown of how trustees vote, this is inconsistent. The minutes sometimes don’t specify which trustees cast dissenting votes. We feel it’s important for the public to have a good, detail record of how each of their elected officials vote every time. Minutes are scant with detail, providing only a general explanation of the trustees’ discussions. Also, Winter Park missed out on bonus points because it will not make draft minutes available to citizens, instead they must first be approved by the town council. Winter Park and Grand Lake are the only towns in the county that don’t share draft minutes. Of Winter Park’s public meetings, about 32 percent included executive sessions. We gave them full points for providing legal rationale and discussion notes regarding the sessions.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (29) — By far, Winter Park had the best budget in the pack. All other towns, districts and the county should strive to meet this budget’s excellence. It includes a table of contents, and the digital version has clickable hyperlinks that direct readers to each section. It also includes a readers’ guide, a “top 10 budget questions and quick links” section, simple language, good design and graphic features to help guide navigation. This budget has excellent graphics that help readers make sense of budget complexities and past financial trends. The town’s expense reports are excellent as well, but they need to include more detail about what specific payments are for.
RECORDS (9) — The town’s hourly fee isn’t included on its form, but the town clerk said staff charges “up to $20 an hour,” within the reasonable range. The town quickly and adequately fulfilled our records request without charge, citing “educational purposes.”
Grand County: C+
WEBSITE (27) — Grand County deserves kudos for having one of the easiest websites to navigate. Agendas and minutes for all public meetings are easy to find for the past three years. Current and past budgets are also posted, along with financial reports, although we couldn’t find expenditures. Personalized contact information was available and easy to find for all elected officials and staff. We especially appreciated that they provide photographs of some elected officials as well. The county’s open records request procedure is easy to find under the “Government Transparency Portal.” It includes a form with specific instructions, but fees are only explained generally. All public meetings are posted on the site’s homepage and in relevant sections.
MEETINGS (24) — The county’s agendas lack detail, and don’t list the place or address of meetings. They also lack information explaining public comment periods. The county does a good job listing estimated times for each agenda item, however.
What they lack in agenda detail the county makes up for in its minutes. The meeting notes read like a transcript, and provide one of the best records of meeting discussions and votes. The county should also be commended for providing meeting summaries to email subscribers shortly after public meetings. Grand County does a good job of recording its executive sessions information before and after meetings. The county’s frequency of holding executive sessions, however, is poor. Around 44 percent of public meetings include executive sessions. We asked why; County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran said a large percentage of closed meetings were due to Moffat and Windy Gap water negotiations that occurred in the past five years. Those involved were required to sign confidentiality agreements in relation to the negotiations. And most recently, the county board has been discussing the investigation of the county building department in closed sessions, she said.
Grand County also has a unique situation in that the commissioner office desks are all in one shared room. Although the newspaper has no proof of the County violating open meeting laws with this setup, we decided to dock points because the county did not remedy this scenario when it did its renovation on the administration building in recent years, even though the newspaper took issue with it then, too. Commissioner desks in one shared room, when they might share the same office hours while conducting public business, technically constitutes a public meeting. This to us could mean possible violations without the public even knowing — or perhaps even the commissioners themselves not even realizing.
However, during the renovation of its administration building, the county did make improvements to its public meeting room. In particular, we commend the county for installing the ceiling camera that feeds video to TV monitors so the public is be able to see documents commissioners view on the meeting table.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (21) — The county had one of only a few budgets that included a table of contents. It also has a “BOCC Budget Message” which is almost like an executive summary, but it’s buried 17 pages down. It lacks charts and graphs. Budget spreadsheets are broken up by accounts within each fund, provide comparisons with past years and have bolded totals. Still, the sheer volume of numbers in this bulky budget makes navigation tedious. Because the county has such a hefty budget, it should especially strive to make it as simple to understand as possible. The county’s expense reports are excellent with clear breakdowns and justifications for all payments.
RECORDS (7) — The county’s freedom of information act form says “each department may also charge a reasonable hourly fee,” but does not specify the fee amount. The county clerk wasn’t able to provide specific information on this hourly fee. The county responded quickly to our request, and provided all requested records without charge.
KEY Websites ON SUNSHINE:
Sos.state.co.us/pubs/info_center/cora.html: The Colorado Open Records Act.
Coloradofoic.org: The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition dedicated to ensuring transparency of state and local governments in Colorado by promoting freedom of the press, open courts and open access to government records and meetings.
Coloradoforethics.org/co: State-based project of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 watchdog group that holds public officials and organizations legally accountable for unethical activities that undermine the integrity of government in Colorado.
Opencolorado.org: Organization enabling open records access to government information by helping even small governments get server space to put records online.
Sunshineweek.org: Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
Ballotpedia.org: An online encyclopedia about politics and elections, which includes projects and evaluation systems on transparency.
We tackled what we view as the first “layer.” We applied points to each of four categories, then assessed each government accordingly: government websites (30 points, plus 2 bonus points), meetings (30 points, plus 4 bonus points), budgets & financial (30 points) and the records request process (10 points).