Keep Ethics Commission Business in the Sunshine

11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission is still in its infancy, but already it has shown an unfortunate penchant for secrecy. Colorado Ethics Watch won an open records lawsuit against the Ethics Commission in May, securing release of documents about requests for ethics opinions that the commission had illegally withheld. Last month, in a case filed by the Colorado Independent, a court ruled that the Ethics Commission violated the state's Open Meetings Law by discussing public business in executive session, and ordered the commission to release tapes of those sessions to the public. Still pending is a suit filed by Ethics Watch in June alleging that the Ethics Commission unlawfully debated the merits of one of its advisory opinions in an executive session.

I've been listening to the newly-released tapes. What's most remarkable about them is how mundane they are. Certainly, the commissioners' discussions about how to interpret and apply Amendment 41 and other ethics laws to the situations presented in advisory opinion requests can sometimes become heated. But that's just democracy in action, and it would be much worse if the commissioners weren't energetically debating the issues. It's good to know that the commissioners are seriously grappling with the questions before them, and having watched the Ethics Commission debate these issues in public since they changed their executive session policy in June, I can say that the public debate since then has been no less robust than the debates the commission held in secret.

So why is the Ethics Commission so concerned about having to operate in the public eye that it is reportedly considering going to the legislature to ask for a special exemption from Colorado's sunshine laws? As ethics expert Robert Wechsler has pointed out, the purpose of ethics commission confidentiality rules is to protect the reputations of "innocent government officials and employees." However, Amendment 41, which created the Ethics Commission, already protects reputations by requiring frivolous complaints to be maintained as confidential, and the Commission's desire for even more secrecy raises the prospect that it views its mission as protecting public officials from ethics complaints, not the enforcement of ethics standards against violators.

The truth is, though, that Ethics Commission transparency benefits everyone. The commission doesn't do any favors to public officials by deliberating on ethics complaints or formal opinion requests in private. That only raises the suspicion that the commissioners -- a majority of whom are present or former elected officials themselves -- have something to cover up. Certainly, secrecy doesn't benefit the public at large in any way. Colorado voters, who created the Ethics Commission, ought to be able to know as much as possible about the requests being processed by the commission and how the commission reaches decisions on those requests.

As the editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote in an editorial in favor of transparency in that city's own ethics commission: "Our government relies on accountability of elected officials to the
people who elected them. Without accountability, the whole system is
less reliable as a way for the people to govern themselves. And
self-governance is what this nation was founded on."

Let's hope the Colorado legislature heeds this wisdom, and rejects any effort to return Ethics Commission business to the shadows.