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Colorado House reaches agreement with members in open meetings law violation case

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Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) Two Democratic state lawmakers and Colorado House leadership entered into an agreement over the chamber’s public meeting procedures that puts clearer expectations around notifying the public about meetings and retaining electronic communication.

State Reps. Elisabeth Epps of Denver and Bob Marshall of Highlands Ranch filed an offer to enter into a so-called consent decree with the chamber and partisan leadership Friday. It is the resolution to a lawsuit filed earlier this summer by the pair that alleges the parties’ weekly caucus meetings and some electronic messaging between lawmakers violate Colorado’s open meetings law. A judge still needs to approve the agreement.

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The lawsuit was against the Colorado House of Representatives, House Speaker Julie McCluskie, House Majority Leader Monica Duran, House Minority Leader Mike Lynch and both party caucuses. Democrats control a large majority in the House.

The agreement states that lawmakers need to provide public notice for any meeting where there is a quorum of a state body present or there is expected “formal action.” Additionally, minutes of the meeting need to be promptly made available. That would apply to the nearly weekly party caucus meetings to discuss legislation and strategy.

The agreement also prohibits two or more House members from discussing public business using electronic messaging phone applications — such as the smartphone messaging platform Signal that uses encryption — unless they retain records of the conversation, which would be made publicly available upon request. Members will not be able to set an automatic delete function on platforms they use to discuss public business with other members.

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That means a person could file a Colorado Open Records Act request for texts, instant messages or other electronic communication between lawmakers to see if and how they communicated about a certain policy.

The settlement does not establish any wrongdoing by any of the involved parties. If a judge approves the decree, it will be enforceable by a judge.

The defendants will need to pay $13,000 to the lawyer representing Epps and Marshall, Steven Zansberg, a prominent First Amendment attorney (Zansberg recently represented Newsline in an open meetings case).

“Colorado House Democrats believe deeply in the values of transparency and open government, and through this agreement, we continue our commitment to ensuring full public access, transparency and fairness in the legislative process,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, and House Majority Leader Monica Duran said in a statement.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.