Jerry Kopel

Much ado about nothing...

by what's his name.

I don't usually get personal in discussing legislative matters, but this past week has really been quite distasteful.

First, the Rocky Mountain News headline "CHAMBER OF SECRETS", followed by a page 4 headline "Senators' closed-door meeting appears illegal". That was followed by stating Sen. Majority leader Joan Fitz-Gerald "stunned everyone when she asked that the doors be closed and the staff, the public, and the media be removed from the chambers"

Soon after, Senate Majority Leader John Evans was reported to have said "he was convinced that it (the call for a closed-door meeting) violated the Sunshine Open Meetings law, which voters approved in 1972."

No one interviewed for the story mentioned the state constitution. We have Article 5, Section 12. "Each house shall have the power to determine the rules of its proceedings...." Next is Article 5, Section 14. "The sessions of each house and of the committees of the whole, shall be open unless when the business is such as ought to be kept secret." That means the House and Senate make that decision.

The House and Senate rules on closed meetings are not the same. The House rule is No. 17. It begins "When in the opinion of any member, the business before the House requires that the discussion thereof be carried on in secret, such member may move the House proceed in executive session when such motion shall have been adopted by the affirmative vote of a majority of all members elected..."

The Senate rule is No. 27. To go into secret or executive session, the motion has to be made and seconded to discuss "any business which may, in the opinion of any senator require secrecy...." The motion doesn't require any vote, unlike the House rule or the Sunshine law, UNLESS it is a motion to go into executive session, which does require a majority vote. The Sunshine law adopted in 1972 was an initiated law. In the game of poker, a constitutional provision always beats an initiated law.

What Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald did was perfectly constitutional. It did not even have to be about a personnel matter, although that was what was revealed to the press after the session ended and the decision was made to reveal the purpose of the secret session.

The Fitz-Gerald motion was proper, and the Sen. John Andrews' order to follow the rule was proper.

The Denver Post made much less about the secret session but noted "the move prompted representatives of the Colorado Press Association to question whether the open meetings law superseded Senate rules." The rules are based on the prerogatives under the constitution.

So I give the association the answer free of charge: "No". If you don't like the constitutional language, you have every right to seek its change by the voters.

While the Senate was not totally non-abusive, it handled the redistricting bill in a way much closer to the rules than did the House, where decorum and common courtesy require the Speaker to recognize a legislator (in this case Minority Leader Jennifer Veiga) who was at the mike and clearly heard on every computer hooked up to the session asking to be recognized relating to amendments to the report of the committee of the whole and was ignored.

The major problem was House Resolution 1001 and Senate Resolution 001 which allowed the rules of the Sixty-third General Assembly (2001-2002) to be made the temporary rules of the House for 2003-2003. Until such time as the permanent rules are adopted by the House..."the temporary rules may be the majority of all members elected." So rule changes can be made by 18 in the Senate and 33 in the House, instead of 24 in the Senate and 44 in the House.

The purpose of living under rules is to protect the minority, not the majority. If they want to block future abuses of power, minority legislators in 2005 should not approve a resolution that takes away their ability through the two-thirds vote needed to suspend rules.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the House of Representatives.)

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