The mayor of Thornton last month left half the city council in the dark when she went to Washington, D.C. on a taxpayer-funded trip, sparking concerns about transparency and potential violations of the state’s sunshine laws.
On Aug. 24, Mayor Jan Kulmann attended a White House event hosted by First Lady Melania Trump, celebrating a century of women’s suffrage and featuring art from a Thornton student.
But it was only when Kulmann was on her way back to Colorado that half the council found out she had spoken to four members about it, leaving the rest of them clueless.
“It was a secret vote,” council member Jacque Phillips said at Tuesday’s council meeting, adding, “whatever those secret conversations were — those have got to be open and transparent.”
On Aug. 13, a city staffer emailed Kulmann, asking if the mayor had run this city-funded trip by council before the staffer booked flights and lodging, according to emails obtained by The Denver Post from a resident who filed an open records request.
“I officially have the OK from 5,” Kulmann responded a day later, referring to the five votes needed for a majority. She included herself in that count.
Kulmann told The Denver Post that she was not asking for approval when she excitedly mentioned the trip in separate conversations with council members soon after finding out about the trip.
“It was a poor choice of words on my side,” Kulmann said, regarding the email.
The mayor cited the city attorney’s advice at Tuesday’s meeting, saying she did not violate city charter since the budget already includes money for these types of trips — meaning Kulmann did not need council approval before going.
“It was approved in the proper method,” she said.
But Phillips, along with the other three members from south Thornton, expressed concern that Kulmann only went to her council allies for support — a group Thornton residents say are often referred to as “the block of five.”
Phillips wondered what other business was being conducted outside council chambers.
“I don’t think we want be like D.C.,” Phillips said at the council meeting. “We are voting together, openly, honestly and transparently.”
Kulmann said she understands their frustration, promising to alert the entire council on travel decisions moving forward.
Still, the mayor said she “feels like they’re bringing it up just for political reasons.”
Colorado’s sunshine law requires “any state or local governmental body to discuss public business or to take formal action in meetings that are open to the public.”
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the Thornton situation is a bit murky since Kulmann may not have actually needed approval to go on the trip.
“If (Kulmann) thought she needed the approval and was trying to get it through these one-on-on meetings, you could make an argument that that was a way to circumvent open meetings law,” Roberts said.
There is case law in some states surrounding instances of elected officials using one-on-one meetings to come to a consensus without all speaking together, he said, but not in Colorado.
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