FOI advocates decry city’s closed-door meetings on JonBenet Ramsey case
|Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner|
Secrecy surrounding the JonBenét Ramsey grand jury investigation has drawn mixed reactions from Colorado news organizations and freedom-of-information advocates.
Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner and City Manager Ron Secrist recently met privately with City Council members — one or two at a time — to discuss the scope of the investigation, which was presented to a grand jury Tuesday.
Under Colorado law, the briefings would be considered “public meetings” if more than two council members attended the sessions.
Under the city charter, the nine City Council members are not permitted to have closed group sessions on any issue, said Barrie Hartman, editor of the Boulder Daily Camera.
Hartman said: “Openness is cherished in this community. We would have hammered them if they had met as a group with the police chief. It would have been an absolute violation of the charter. As a newspaper, we're very aggressive on public records and open meetings questions. We keep our attorney busy.”
Six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, a former Little Miss Colorado, was found beaten and strangled in the basement of her family's home Dec. 26, 1996, several hours after being reported kidnapped. The 21-month-old case, considered one of the most highly publicized homicides in Boulder County, remains unsolved.
Hartman said there was a push from the public to have a special prosecutor called into the case to replace District Attorney Alex Hunter, who many people feel is too close to the Ramseys. According to city officials, the council needed to be informed in order to issue an opinion on the matter.
Tom Kelly, president of the state Freedom of Information Council, said: “This is a clear evasion of the open meetings law. What a court would do? I don't know. Given that we're talking about something unique to Boulder — with the investigation in a critical stage — courts might be reluctant to get involved.”
Lee Olsen, state sunshine chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed. He told — that the meetings hinder open government.
“When units of government practice secrecy it can create quite an upheaval,” Olsen said. “If there were a lot of council members voting for secrecy this would be a very sensitive case for news organizations.”
Such secrecy, however, could work to the media's advantage, said Frank Scandale, metro editor of The Denver Post.
Scandale said: “The more people who know what's going on from the inside, the better chance we have of accessing that information. This might be a way of getting around open and public meetings, but it might actually work to our benefit.”
The meetings have been held privately “to create a climate of comfortable discussion as opposed to making a formal presentation at a city council meeting, which is not as conducive to a conversation,” said Leslie Aaholm, city of Boulder spokeswoman.
City attorney Joe deRaismes has not returned phone calls.