District college boards seek permission to make decisions via email

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

The governing boards of Colorado’s two local district community colleges want state lawmakers’ permission to make decisions via email.

Colorado’s Open Meetings Law, aka the Sunshine Law, effectively bars email discussions of public business among three or more elected members of a local government body because it’s difficult, if not impossible, for the public to “attend” that meeting and monitor what is discussed. The law declares that “the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.”

But under HB 16-1259, introduced by Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, the elected trustees of Glenwood Springs-based Colorado Mountain College and Greeley-based Aims Community College would be permitted to take action using email, fax “or other form of wire or wireless communication” if proper notice is given beforehand.

emailThe bill would prohibit electronic meetings of this sort if any one board member objects in writing or if a member of the public requests that the proposed action be discussed during a regular or special meeting.

“We aren’t trying to unravel anything that’s working well in the state,” said Matt Gianneschi, chief operating officer and chief of staff for Colorado Mountain College. “We’re simply trying to find another option for trustees to act on pending college actions in the event a regular meeting isn’t scheduled or a phone meeting cannot be accommodated for one reason or another.”

Most community colleges in Colorado are governed by a single state board, but Colorado Mountain College and Aims Community College each have their own elected boards of trustees.

Gianneschi said HB 16-1259 would ease board consideration of “straightforward” matters, such as routine decisions on ongoing capital projects. Noting that CMC’s 11 campuses serve an area about the size of Maryland, except with “numerous mountain passes and challenging driving conditions for nearly half the year,” he said it’s sometimes difficult to pull trustees together for an in-person meeting.

Even conference calls (which could involve the public via a call-in number) are sometimes hard to arrange, Gianneschi added. Email meetings “would not be our first choice, per se, but another tool in the meeting toolbox if we find ourselves in a situation when trustees are unavailable for a phone call or a regular meeting.”

Allowing any single board member or member of the public to request an in-person or phone meeting “ensures that anyone with a concern about the potential action can halt the vote and move it to a traditional setting,” Gianneschi said.

Under HB 16-1259, the boards of CMC and Aims would be required to provide “full and timely notice” of the proposed action to be taken. The Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association want that requirement beefed up with an amendment that allows for individuals to request notification when an action is to be taken by electronic means. The Open Meetings Law has a similar notification provision sometimes called the “sunshine list.”

Greg Romberg, lobbyist for both associations, said strengthening and clarifying the notification requirements should alleviate most concerns about the bill.

And what if other elected governing boards in Colorado ask for a similar Sunshine Law exemption? “If they’re not as geographically diverse and they meet more often, it would be harder for them to argue that it’s necessary,” Romberg said.

“Anybody else who wants to do it will have to bring it back to the legislature,” he added. “We’d have some history as to how it works.”

HB 16-1259 has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House Education Committee.

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.

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