Our elected officials must follow the letter and the spirit of our laws.
Colorado's popular Sunshine Law, enacted nearly 40 years ago and widely supported by citizens today, sets forth the open-meetings mandate that public business be conducted ... in public. There are a few clear exceptions, such as allowing executive sessions when discussing personnel matters or officially negotiating on land or buildings.
While the private sector does not have to air its information and decision-making processes in public, such openness is vital to the government's decision-making processes by giving citizens, civic groups and journalists the information they need to understand, participate in, and report on public debate about how our government officials and their appointees operate.
The Sunshine Law has proven effective in preventing special interests from obtaining preferential treatment and/or access to public coffers. Of even greater importance, the law prevents "groupthink." But most of all, having decisions made in public enables citizens to follow the debate, which creates an atmosphere of public accountability that is the foundation of a healthy democracy.
Candidate Steve Bach, when running to be our first strong mayor earlier this year, promised an open, transparent government. He came across as sincere, earnest, full of ideas and intent to help the city return to its glory days of broad-based prosperity with unmatched quality of life. The words sounded good, and he put them into context by recalling the city's much-maligned, secretive deal to retain the U.S. Olympic Committee's presence in Colorado Springs. Bach repeatedly emphasized that while he supported keeping the USOC here, he vigorously disagreed with the secretive nature of those negotiations. He made it clear that, if elected, his operating style would embrace transparency.
Little did we know just how soon a comparable set of circumstances would surface. And it's now apparent that Bach is not living up to his encouraging campaign rhetoric.
This time the issue is Memorial Health System, and deciding how it will be governed. Not only are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of public dollars at stake, but also our community's access to health care for decades to come. For at least the next four months, a City Council-appointed task force will oversee the process, from putting together requests for proposals (RFPs) to analyzing bids from companies interested in running Memorial, then making a recommendation to Council.
In late August, we learned that at Mayor Bach's behest, the Regional Leadership Forum — represented by local business heavyweights Phil Lane, Doug Quimby and Chris Jenkins — would join the Memorial task force in developing RFPs and identifying the best options. Bach also said he would personally participate in the task force's meetings. But as soon as it became evident that all members would have to follow Colorado's Sunshine Law, Bach balked. At the most recent task-force meeting on Sept. 2, he stated that he didn't want himself or his businessmen appointees "to be held to the same standard as the task force."
Bach, Lane, Jenkins and Quimby are trying to control the process of what Colorado Springs should do with its citizen-owned hospital system. They even identified and discussed working arrangements with other outside consultants, even before their involvement was approved by City Council.
But the mayor and his allies can't have it both ways, wanting to be actively involved yet not wanting to follow the Sunshine requirements.
Bach, still learning the ropes after only three months in his first elected office, must set the transparency bar high to rebuild the public's trust in government. It is just plain wrong for Bach to parse the wording of our Sunshine Law by appointing his businessmen friends as "official collaborators" instead of actual members of the Memorial panel, specifically to avoid the open-meetings standards.
Shenanigans to circumvent the spirit of open and accountable government are distressing to us. Bach must realize that, as our city's first strong mayor, almost everything he does now could set precedents for the next 10, 20, even 50 years in how our city government will operate.
Another concern: If Bach continues to sidestep Sunshine mandates, a lawsuit is inevitable, which will further distract the Memorial task force from focusing on its important work. The likely outcome: This entire Memorial process could be delayed, once again, for months or even years. Hundreds of thousands of scarce public dollars would be wasted, and citizens' mistrust of government will increase.
Subverting our Sunshine Law is not what the people of Colorado Springs want. Given the public's lingering negativity over the USOC retention deal, we call for real, committed transparency from all involved. We offer Bach the chance to clarify his position, explaining to the entire city whether he and his allies will voluntarily abide by the Sunshine Law or continue operating behind closed doors.
Bach began his mayoral tenure with enormous goodwill. People want him to succeed. We urge our new mayor not to waste this precious commodity by attempting to circumvent basic good-government and open-government laws.
Just admit you made a rookie mistake, Mr. Mayor, and let's all move forward.
Open invitation to Mayor Bach
We offer Mayor Steve Bach the opportunity to explain, unedited, in next week's Independent the benefit he believes the public will obtain if he and his allies operate outside our Sunshine Law mandates.