Some public-process issues deserve extra attention. House Bill 21-1051, now working its way through the Colorado Capitol, must be opposed.

The bill aims to rewrite portions of the Colorado Open Meetings Act and Colorado Open Meetings Law to allow public bodies to disclose just one finalist when choosing a new chief executive such as a city manager, school district superintendent or university president.

Unfortunately, a panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals recently reversed an earlier decision that open-government laws require the naming of multiple chief executive finalists. Instead it ruled that the University of Colorado regents did not violate CORA when it released only Mark Kennedy’s application for the CU presidency to the Boulder Daily Camera in 2019.

With that appeals ruling, the Legislature received a nod to take action, and the bill now in motion clearly steps the wrong direction. We urge a strong no to House Bill 21-1051. Let’s fight to retain “open search” practices and oppose the “closed search” proposal.

We have made a habit of following school superintendent searches and final choices of high-level public officials fastidiously. Best-case scenario is when a school district narrows its search to at least three candidates, then invites them to meet the school board, tour the district, and meet community members. The names are shared and the process to name finalists is detailed in advance, clear and open. Worst-case scenario is when no names are provided and then a sole finalist is announced.

We believe the public, in direct participation in these processes and through available documents — and by media reporting — has the right to know and the right to interact in making these crucial decisions.

We understand the desire to make a hiring process somewhat private. But here is the hitch with this logic in simple terms. The public sector should not operate like the private sector, although we often understand and see why it may want to: The private sector can hire its leaders behind closed doors and can follow whatever slight or intensive process it chooses. It can be a faster process and more private.

The choice of a superintendent involves a public-body, tax-funded position. The competition for these public positions should be open. Candidates should be held to an open, public process to help ensure that the best possible choice results. These types of important decisions, involving taxpayer and leadership roles, have deep impacts in communities and should be above reproach. Let’s say those two core words again — above reproach. To attain this benchmark, the process for selecting these high-level leaders must be open and the names of finalists must be public record.

For our role in media, we aim to make sure a diverse pool of candidates is chosen, backgrounds are fully vetted, and no important questions go unasked. We recognize that public officials do ask stellar questions aplenty, but we can usually add additional valid questions. Additionally, we look into business alliances, affiliations, potential cronyism, cultural diversity and more, which are important considerations.

We are not going to detail the other side of the coin, but we appreciate a comment from Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, who cited research that counters one of the main pitches for closed searches.

“If the assertion that a closed search produces better outcomes were accurate, we would expect to find that more people leave prestigious higher-education jobs for presidencies in ‘closed search’ states as opposed to ‘open search’ states. However, we found no such evidence,” LoMonte wrote. “There was no discernible distinction in the credentials of the hires made in states with ‘closed’ searches versus those that conduct ‘open’ searches.”

Colorado Community Media President and Colorado Press Association President Jerry Healey is urging media outlets to mobilize to oppose this bill. He noted that CCM’s west metro coverage area just experienced a problematic “closed search” for superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, which was responded to with an editorial. Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) has additional coverage on this House bill as well.

Take action

Please contact your local state House and Senate representatives and urge them to oppose House Bill 21-1051. Sending an email to your representative’s office is quick and effective. Please act now.