By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
Russell Weisfield, whose lawsuit over the use of secret ballots by the Arvada City Council led to a change in the state Open Meetings Law last year, won the Colorado Press Association’s “Friend of the First” award on Saturday.
The Arvada resident sued his city in January 2014, alleging that council members ignored a 2012 statute when they voted four times by secret ballot to eliminate candidates for a vacant council seat. A judge in Jefferson County dismissed the lawsuit, not because the case lacked merit, but because she determined that Weisfield lacked legal standing to file suit.
Why? Because he couldn’t show that he had been personally harmed by the secret procedure that selected the eventual winner, Jerry Marks. While acknowledging that Arvada “may have violated the secret ballot provision” of the law, the judge noted that Weisfield wasn’t among the finalists for the council vacancy and he never claimed that Marks was “failing to adequately represent his interests” as a resident of Arvada’s council District 1.
The Colorado General Assembly moved quickly in the aftermath of the decision, approving HB 14-1390 without a single “no” vote. The measure, signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last June, ensures that anyone has legal standing to challenge violations of the Open Meetings Law, also known as the Sunshine Law.
Weisfield has appealed his case, arguing that he was, in fact, injured because the City Council never remedied its violation of the statute.
The Friend of the First award recognizes a Coloradan “who is a passionate advocate of First Amendment rights, freedom of the press, and open government.” Weisfield couldn’t attend the awards luncheon at the CPA’s annual convention in Denver, but he prepared a statement for the event:
“I am honored that the Colorado Press Association would think of me for this award and regret that I cannot appear in person. My hope when the City Council began filling its vacancy was that the process would be utterly transparent. My goal in challenging that lack of transparency was to learn basic facts, such as how my elected officials voted. I continue to be amazed that I am met with great opposition in trying to learn these things. Such opposition contributes to a mistrust of government, complacency in the public and a weakening of our democracy.
“I imagine, though, that government officials fight openness because they know that few people will challenge them. Those people who do will find the road extremely difficult. I, myself, continue to face many challenges in my fight. There needs to be a better way to enforce sunshine laws. Relying upon a handful of observant, caring and active citizens who have the time and resources to mount a fight for transparency is a recipe for opaqueness.”
Two years ago, the CPA presented a Friend of the First award to Fort Morgan businessman Ron Henderson, who had filed a lawsuit that led to the 2012 statute used by Weisfield as the basis of his legal challenge.
Henderson sued after the Fort Morgan City Council used secret ballots to appoint a municipal judge and fill two council vacancies. Although he lost in district court and in the Colorado Court of Appeals, the legislature then approved the legislation that prohibits the use of secret ballots.
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