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Politics and Government

Will the next governor be open and transparent to the public? The record is not promising

Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton made hostile comments toward the news media on the campaign trail and diverge on public accountability

Democratic candidate Jared Polis, left, participates in a debate with Republican candidate Walker Stapleton, right, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University's campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo provided by Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan)
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No matter who wins on Election Day, Colorado will elect the least transparent governor in recent memory.

In the 2018 campaign, neither Democrat Jared Polis nor Republican Walker Stapleton disclosed their tax returns, violating a decades-long tradition in Colorado that allowed voters to evaluate potential conflicts of interest for the state’s top elected official.

The lack of openness is amplified by hostile remarks both candidates made toward the news media, as well as their unwillingness at times to answer significant questions to help voters understand their positions.

The disregard for public disclosure raises questions about how they would govern if elected.

VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more

Polis, the front-runner in recent polls, would not commit to releasing a schedule of his daily public events if elected– a move that would break with current practice and make his administration less transparent.

The five-term congressman from Boulder said he hadn’t considered the issue yet, but he suggested that he is not inclined to do so. “I haven’t done that as a member of Congress,” he told The Colorado Sun in a recent interview.

He said he is open to holding regular news conferences, but at the same time, he expressed interest in taking his message directly to his followers. He clarified he would do so “in a very different way than the current president.”

The tactic reflects his campaign, where Polis acted as his own media company — broadcasting positive segments of his public events live on Facebook and issuing his own “Polis Post” newsletter filled with favorable information about his campaign.

In contrast, Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer, made a commitment to release his daily public schedule and offer the media regular opportunities to ask questions if elected.

“I think communication is important,” he said in an interview with The Sun. “I think it’s an important responsibility for serving in elected office, for sure.”

Jeff Roberts, the director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for transparency in government, said the news media plays a crucial role as “the eyes and ears of the public,” especially because most people don’t have time to track elected officials.

“This concept goes back to the Founding Fathers. They created a democracy that is really dependent on the public having information about the government, how decisions are made and how tax money is spent, so that they know how to vote intelligently in elections and so they can also hold leaders accountable for their actions,” he said.

“It’s really important for the next governor to be as open and transparent as possible, not just directly with the public, but to be able to provide information to journalists who are looking to dig into certain issues that the public doesn’t have the resources or the time to dig into on their own,” Roberts added.

MORE: Where Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton stand on the issue in the Colorado governor’s race.

Polis and Stapleton had frayed relations with press in campaign

During the campaign, both candidates raised cause for concern about their willingness to run an open government.

In a Republican primary debate, Stapleton would not refute President Donald Trump’s comment that the media are “the enemy of the people,” and he suggested without evidence that there’s “definitely a left-leaning media bias.”

In a recent campaign event, Polis dismissed reports about his support for a carbon tax as “fake news” — even though he outlined the proposal in a televised debate. His campaign told The Sun the quip was a joke, and Polis later apologized on Twitter saying “in these challenging times when journalists are under attack, candidates and elected officials shouldn’t make jokes that could be construed as denigrating real media.”

The candidates’ comments come amid Trump’s frequent attacks on the news media. The industry as a whole faces a trust deficit with the public, but a recent survey found that 76 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in local media outlets.

The Polis and Stapleton campaigns had antagonistic relations with the Colorado news media at times during the campaign, deriding reporters and calling the management of news organizations seeking to get negative stories changed. Stapleton drew criticism for not agreeing to interviews with publications his campaign considered biased, and Polis often refused to answer questions from reporters at some public events.

When it came to releasing their tax returns, the candidates only said they would disclose their finances if the other candidate did it first, despite questions about their finances in the campaign. In the end, neither did. Colorado law requires candidates for public office to file limited financial disclosure forms — and the two candidates complied — but the law does not require candidates to release their tax returns. For more than two decades, Colorado candidates for governor voluntarily made the disclosure.

MORE: The Colorado Sun’s poll tracker: See what the polls say about  Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton in the governor’s race.

Neither candidate emphasized “good government” in the campaign

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper made “good government” and transparency efforts a significant part of his administration, but the two candidates running to replace him are largely silent on the issue.

The topic of access to public records and meetings is a frequent one in the state legislature, and Hickenlooper vetoed a measure earlier this year to seal child autopsies because it would shield elected coroners from public scrutiny. He also signed a measure to improve access to digital records.

A 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity gave Colorado a D+ when it came to accountability and transparency in government.

Roberts, a leading open government advocate, said there are actions the next governor can take to change course and “help the state as a whole be more transparent and accountable — it would be nice to see some of that.”


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