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Gov. Jared Polis signs bill exempting lawmakers from parts of open-meetings law

Colorado lawmakers are now exempt from parts of the state’s open-meetings law after Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that legalizes longstanding practices challenged by transparency advocates.

Polis signed SB24-157 into law with immediate effect on Tuesday, a day after the bill cleared the House and a month after the measure was first introduced by legislative leaders. The quick stamp of approval from the governor came as the League of Women Voters of Colorado had publicly urged him to veto the measure, while the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition had scheduled a meeting with his office to discuss the bill and other legislation related to transparency.

In a signing statement accompanying Tuesday evening’s announcement that the bill was now law, Polis wrote that he respected the legislature’s authority to regulate its own inner workings.

The changes, which apply only to the General Assembly, allow legislators to discuss public business in small groups or in so-called serial meetings, which involve a series of conversations that don’t immediately constitute a voting majority of a committee or the chamber. Those meetings will remain public, but lawmakers do not have to publicly announce them.

The bill also states that digital communications between lawmakers, including emails and text messages, don’t amount to a meeting. Under prior state law, electronic conversations that dealt with public business were considered public meetings.

With the changes, emails or texts between legislators could still be obtained via Colorado’s public records law. But Jeff Roberts, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Coalition, expressed doubt that members of the public would always have success obtaining them.

Roberts said that though communications could be obtained via records request, he was concerned about the lack of a retention requirement, plus existing exemptions that shield legislative work product from public release. Legislators said a retention requirement may still come, albeit in a separate, similarly contentious bill dealing with the state’s public records law.

The measure broadly codified practices that were common in the Capitol, including informal meetings to discuss legislation, amendments and strategy that, while technically public, often occurred without notice and in private settings.

The bill had sparked an outcry from transparency advocates, who argued it went too far in amending the open-meetings law. They were critical of a lack of additional protections around record retention and release. The bill also drew criticism from two Democratic lawmakers who had sued the House and its leaders last summer for violating the open-meetings law.

SB-157 was backed by the legislature’s two chamber leaders, Senate President Steve Fenberg and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, both Democrats. They pitched the bill as a needed clarification to how the open-meetings law applies to phone calls and emails.

They also argued that the bill was needed to address confusion about how legislators are allowed to communicate amid the rapid pace of the legislative session.

“We are grappling with hundreds of policy decisions. We are having to engage with one another multiple times a day, sometimes an hour,” McCluskie told legislators Monday, shortly before the bill passed 39-22.

The bill had cleared an initial vote in the House late last week with no debate after earlier passing the Senate. Monday’s final vote came with criticism from several Republicans and from Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Bob Marshall, the Democrats who filed last year’s lawsuit.

Legislative leaders later settled that lawsuit and agreed to limit informal meetings and to keep records of virtual meetings. But the new state of affairs sparked consternation among legislators, who were confused about which communications were OK and which weren’t, and resulted in Fenberg and McCluskie’s bill.

Fenberg, asked last month if lawmakers were moving swiftly on the bill to clear up that confusion, told reporters that the bill wasn’t being fast-tracked. Polis signed it into law a month later, on a swift timeline following the bill’s final approval.

Earlier, lawmakers adopted an amendment presented by Fenberg that more regularly will allow legislative leadership to discuss how the open-meetings law affects the General Assembly.

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