A Colorado judge singlehandedly gutted the state’s open meetings law by tossing out a citizen’s lawsuit against a local city council, ruling that the citizen who brought it didn’t have legal standing to complain.
The case involved the Arvada City Council using a secret ballot to fill a vacancy, which is a violation of the state’s open meetings law, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC). Arvada resident Russell Weisfield sued, arguing that the appointment of Jerry Marks to the council was illegal and that Marks should be removed.
Weisfield argued that the prohibition against secret ballots “creates in all citizens a legally protected interest in government transparency and/or knowing what is on a ballot concerning a position or formal action,” according to District Court Judge Margie Enquist’s written ruling.
But Enquist ruled that because Weisfield himself wasn’t running for the vacant seat, he didn’t suffer any injury because of the secret balloting.
“Plaintiff does not articulate any direct, specific impact this voting procedure had on him or his legally-protected interests,” Enquist wrote.
She also disagreed with Weisfield that the Open Meetings Law confers legal standing on every citizen of Colorado, even though the law specifically states “the courts of record of this state shall have jurisdiction to issue injunctions to enforce the purposes of this section upon application by any citizen of this state.”
Despite dismissing the suit, Enquist wrote that use of the secret ballots “may have” violated the law.
The dismissal left First Amendment advocates stunned.
“If left uncorrected on appeal, the judge’s ruling would essentially render the Open Meetings Law a dead letter, unenforceable by anyone who did not suffer a direct injury as a result of a violation of the statute,” attorney Steve Zansberg said in an article on the CFOIC website. “That is plainly not the intent of, nor the statutory text codified by, the General Assembly.”
Zansberg called the ruling “astounding and breathtaking.”
The city of Arvada maintained that it didn’t violate the law because the anonymous ballots were used to eliminate other candidates. The final unanimous vote for Marks was made in public, according to CFOIC.
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