Douglas County and Lone Tree residents who can’t attend certain public meetings in person will now be able to listen anytime after both entities expanded their public access following questions from Colorado Community Media on their practices.
Douglas County commissioners began recording work sessions, and the City of Lone Tree now records its regular meetings. In these meetings, city councils and county commissioners often make decisions about the use of tax dollars, policies and resolutions.
During pandemic shutdowns, several government entities in the county expanded access to their public meetings, making them available to join and comment virtually. Most continued doing so even after restrictions were lifted, and some said the changes resulted in more engagement from the public.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the more access government provides to the public the better.
“The more information people have about what their government is doing, it’s better for our democracy,” he said. “People can participate, they can vote intelligently in elections if they know what's going on and how decisions are made and something is being discussed that might be happening in their backyard.”
The three-person Douglas County commissioner board, which is the decision-making body for the county’s more than $500 million budget, meets in regular session twice a month. Many times a week though, the board meets for work sessions where it discuss issues in depth, votes on policies and debates issues.
Under Colorado's Open Meetings law, there is not a legal difference between work sessions and regular meetings. Some government entities choose not to make policy decisions in work sessions.
In previous work sessions, commissioners have made decisions such as forming their own health department, removing Commissioner Lora Thomas from her position as chair of the board and selecting new board of health members.
While there are minutes taken at these meetings, the minutes are often brief or vague and do not always show the full extent of the conversations and decisions that occurred. In August 2021, minutes from a commissioner work session excluded information about which candidates had been selected by each commissioner for the Public Health Advisory Committee. When CCM asked for that information, which had been discussed in the public meeting, it was denied.
During the height of the pandemic, the county made work sessions available for the public to join virtually, but residents could only listen to the meetings live. Video recordings of the meetings weren't available.
While most city councils meet at night, the county commissioners typically hold their work sessions and regular meetings during the day when many residents are at work.
The county first recorded one of the commissioners' work sessions Sept. 1, when commissioners decided to immediately leave the Tri-County Health Department and form their own.
In late 2021, when Colorado Community Media learned the state’s Sunshine Laws require governmental bodies that begin electronically recording their meetings to continue doing so, a reporter asked Douglas County about its practice in reference to this law. County spokesperson Wendy Holmes responded that because of the question, the county decided in January to begin recording all commissioners' work sessions.
“This became one more tool in our toolbox to help people engage in the process of governance if they are interested in doing so,” Holmes said.
Now, recordings of those work sessions are available to the public upon request within the calendar year of the meeting. Those interested in receiving a recording from a meeting can call 303-660-7401 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The county will also produce transcriptions of their work sessions, Holmes said.
Roberts said recordings of meetings are another way to bring government closer to more people.
“County commissioners and city councils are making important decisions that affect people really close to their homes or even in their homes so those are things people ought to know about,” he said, “And if you make the meetings more accessible to people, more people will get involved.”
After pandemic restrictions began, the City of Lone Tree began streaming its regular meetings and study sessions on YouTube, making them available to anyone at any time. But in May 2021, city officials announced they would no longer host virtual meetings or record the sessions for later viewing. For the rest of the year, the only way to know what happened in the meetings was to attend in person.
In November 2021, a CCM reporter asked the city about the Sunshine Law requiring governmental bodies to continue recording meetings electronically, and in January, Lone Tree resumed the practice for regular town meetings, said Assistant City Manager Austin Good.
“As part of regular reevaluation of our administrative practices, the city began recording audio this January,” he said.
The city does not record study sessions, Good said. Residents can request the audio files from regular meetings any time through a public records request.
Lone Tree, unlike most other governmental entities in the county, does not have any options for viewing or participating in meetings virtually.
When asked why, Good said the town's “current focus has been on returning to pre-pandemic practices.”
Roberts said ideally, government entities should also have video recordings of meetings.
In all other government entities in the county other than Lone Tree, boards and councils have continued to allow residents to remotely comment on public issues during meetings.
“A hybrid approach creates the greatest flexibility for the public to participate in their city council meetings,” said Michael Penny, Castle Pines city manager.
Representatives from Parker, Castle Pines and the Highlands Ranch Community Association all said they noticed an uptick in attendance once they added more virtual options for viewing and commenting.
“A lot of people prefer Zoom because it takes less time and it’s easier for them to get on,” said Jamie Noebel, spokesperson for the Highlands Ranch Community Association.
During the latest wave of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant, the HRCA began hearing from residents who said they again felt uncomfortable attending in-person meetings.
“I think the simplicity and access of Zoom has given more people the opportunity to watch and dig in and just engage and educate themselves on what’s going on where they may have never had access to that information before,” Noebel said. “Now that we’ve opened that door, it’s hard to put that back in the barn. And I don’t think people want it to be put away.”
Roberts said livestreaming meetings makes the government more accessible to everybody.
“You could be making dinner and watching what your government is doing at the same time,” he said.
The Highlands Ranch Metro District, which added virtual options for its regular meetings and work sessions during the pandemic, has budgeted to expand access further in 2022 with recordings, General Manager Mike Renshaw said.
“In an effort to enhance transparency and provide a more convenient way for residents to stay informed, the metro district is planning to add a video recording of its board of directors meetings this year,” he said.
Those recordings will be posted to the metro district's website within a day or two of the meeting, he said.
About 30% of respondents in a Town of Parker citizens survey said they virtually watched a town council or planning commission meeting in 2021 compared to 18% who said they attended a meeting in person.
“It just brings government a lot closer to the people when you have meetings put online in real time that you can also watch or listen to after the fact at your convenience,” Roberts said.
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