Colorado lawmakers advance bill to change how open meetings law is applied

Watchdog groups say Senate Bill 24-157 would let legislators leave the public in the dark.
colorado capitol
Posted at 9:21 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-01 23:30:11-05

DENVER — Colorado’s opening meeting law was designed to ensure public business is conducted in public. But state lawmakers are considering a bill government watchdog groups say would change that.

“It's a pretty significant change to the law that was passed by the voters of Colorado in 1972,” said Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which advocates for transparency in government.

He said the Senate Bill 24-157 would allow lawmakers to exempt themselves from the state’s open meetings law and allow them to have unlimited conversations by email, text, or apps.

“Policies could be formulated, policies could be perhaps even decided outside of public view,” said Roberts.

Democratic leaders pushing the bill say they’re not trying to be less transparent but they want to create more clarity so everyone understands how to follow the laws.

“Genuinely, my intent here is not to hide anything in or create a less transparent process,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, who is sponsoring the bill.

Fenberg said too many lawmakers are afraid to talk to each other out of fear of violating the opening meetings law.

“I don't know how you solve the toxicity in American politics at large. But what I do know is that there's no way the answer can be to talk to each other less,” Fenberg said.

Emails, text messages, and other written communications between lawmakers would still be subject to the state’s open records law, but Roberts said getting them won't be easy.

"They may have been deleted. We know that state lawmakers use these disappearing messaging apps to communicate sometimes,” said Roberts. “And then there are exceptions to the CORA, the Colorado Open Records Act, that would make a lot of these communications not available to the public."

Fenberg introduced an amendment to his bill this week defining draft bills as “public business” whenever a quorum of a committee is present.

Colorado lawmakers advance bill to change how opening meeting law is applied

Watchdog groups are also concerned about House Bill 24-1296, which is meant to prevent records custodians from being harassed by vexatious requesters.

Roberts said like the SB24-157, it'll make it harder for the public to see what elected officials are up to.

“They're asking for this because they are feeling overwhelmed by records requests. But it's coming at a time when making requests for public records in Colorado can already be very expensive,” said Roberts.

HB24-1296 will be heard in the State, Civic, Military, and Veterans Affairs committee in the House on Monday.

Fenberg's bill, which is sponsored by Speaker Julie McCluskie and Speaker Pro Tempore Chris deGruy Kennedy in the House, passed on second reading in the Senate. Senators must take one more vote before it is sent to the House.

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