Sonnenberg is the “defender of a free press” – Akron News-Reporter

DENVER — It may be fitting that among the state’s latest legislative honors, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, may receive an award linking him to a time in life before politics.

He is well known as a farmer and rancher, but for a time he was a teacher and, as many may not remember, a photographer and writer for the Sterling Journal-Lawyer newspaper.

He was one of three Republicans and 11 overall members of the Colorado Legislature honored Thursday with awards from the Colorado Press Association. Sonnenberg received the Defender of a Free Press Award.

“I am humbled and grateful to be recognized,” he said, as the first recipient of the award.

He claims to have “lost a bet” that paved the way for a 16-year career in the Colorado Legislature. He is the only outgoing member of this session to have served 16 consecutive years under the Golden Dome.

It all started when he agreed to chair a committee to draft zoning regulations related to Logan County’s right to farm.

State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is shown defending a bill under the Golden Dome, where he has served for the past 16 years. (Fort Morgan Times file photo)

“I had become an advocate for agriculture,” Sonnenberg said. “With no political experience, it wasn’t part of a plan to go to Denver.”

But he continued to be encouraged to run for office because “there were not enough people with dirt under their fingernails willing to do so”.

Though he wasn’t sure whether to make the ballot, Sonnenberg, a Sterling native, was elected first to the Colorado House and then to the Senate.

“I had never run for office,” Sonnenberg said. “The last election I had was for high school student council, and I lost.”

To be fired’

Sonnenberg developed a passion for his work at the newspaper, he says, fulfilling a variety of general assignments.

“I really liked doing [freelance] working for the Journal-Advocate,” he said, recalling that he had worked under award-winning editor Jeff Rice, who is the newspaper’s longest-serving reporter and staffer.

“We always got along well,” Sonnenberg said. “Now, we may not have always agreed and still don’t always agree on politics.”

One of those disagreements gave him an opportunity that led to a legislative career, he recalls.

“We had a little disagreement. Apparently there had been a little quarrel with an advertiser, and [Jeff] felt it was inappropriate to use them in a story,” Sonnenberg said. “I continued to write the story as I saw fit.”

And so, Sonnenberg’s departure from the newspaper began, he recalls.

“You’re the editor, take it out,” Sonnenberg said. “Jeff told me that the newspaper no longer needed my services. We have remained friends and work well together. I am still subscribed, and my mother too.

Rice argues that Sonnenberg embellishes memory. It wasn’t exactly Donald Trump’s reality show “You’re Fired!” moment Sonnenberg remembers, says Rice. He’s not sure he ever fired the senator, but he agreed it made for a good story.

“I think Jeff is doing a great job,” Sonnenberg said. “He can do even better today than he did then. I think he does. I respected Jeff then as an editor, and I respect him now as an editor. as a journalist.

The fourth power

Colorado Senator Jerry Sonnenberg's message to the promotion of Fort Morgan High School on Saturday at Legion Field was to not be afraid of
State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, addresses the class of 2019 from Fort Morgan High School. He remembers losing an election in high school, and he hasn’t lost one since. (Fort Morgan Times file photo)

He may not have realized it at the time, but a short career in the press offered him lessons that would benefit him as a legislator.

“The press is our friend,” Sonnenberg said. “I’ve used the press and we’ve had a great partnership for 16 years to help educate the people they reach about what’s going on in Denver.”

He has regularly criticized the fact that bills pass through committees and chambers with such rapidity in the Colorado Legislature, particularly at the end of a session, that it is virtually impossible for ordinary people with daily life to follow the process.

“Without the press, you don’t have that understanding,” he said. “Without the press, there are no conversations with people like me, and [the public] do not understand what is happening around them.

During his tenure in the Colorado Legislature, Sonnenberg could often be found at the J&L Cafe in Sterling discussing politics or offering a handshake to nearly anyone who walked in at breakfast time. It was also often there that he met the editor of the newspaper or a journalist.

“They should want to cover these things that I say or do, so my constituents know if I’m doing a good job or a bad job for them,” he said. “That’s why the press is important.”

Open Government Advocate

With Sonnenberg’s limited term, the Colorado legislature loses one of its strongest advocates of open government and a less restrictive open documents policy.

“Open records are essential to transparency and government,” Sonnenberg said. “Some of the things they do make it harder to get information, like charging printing fees. It’s incredible. This limits people’s access to government. Honestly, the only way to understand what the government is doing is to have access, to have access to these documents.

He called a recent report “incredibly credible” in Colorado Politics regarding claims Sen. Kevin Priola, after switching parties, wanted to “blatantly avoid.” [Colorado Open Records]right. That should never happen, Sonnenberg said.

“It’s not enough to ask me why I voted yes or no, or why I tabled an amendment,” Sonnenberg said. “If there is any other history, people need to know about it.”

He calls the open cases a “point A to point B” roadmap, and cautions if there are zigzags between the points, the public needs to ask questions.

“The press needs to know and people need to know,” he said. “If the press doesn’t know, people will never know. You should have access so people understand how a decision was made.

State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, addresses the crowd Saturday at the Meat-In event.  It was one of nearly a dozen stops Sonnenberg has made in support of the beef industry.
State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, addresses the crowd at a Meat-In event. It was one of nearly a dozen stops Sonnenberg made that day in support of the cattle industry. (Photo from Journal-Advocate file)

He is a proponent of lower costs on open cases and has pledged in his new role as commissioner that fees on open cases will be reviewed and likely reduced in Logan County. He criticizes the government for often complicating a process that should be simplified.

“You shouldn’t be charging the public by the hour, charging the newspaper by the hour to compile emails,” Sonnenberg said. “What should happen is that when you send me a request for this email, I send this email directly to you. Period. Is it hard to forward? Just do a search.

He gives a hypothetical scenario where Rice asks her Senate office for any email conversations with Senate Speaker Stephen Fenberg regarding a bill.

“Therefore the [email] research is Fenberg and this bill,” Sonnenberg said. “And whatever comes back, just press Jeff. It’s an open file.

But, further complicating the process, members of the legislature are the only members of the state government who don’t have state-issued email addresses, Fenberg said last week at the convention. Colorado Press Association.

The government has added delays to the process, Sonnenberg says, which he adds his aide, Dusty Johnson, could do in minutes.

“We have to send it to legislative counsel and they review it to make sure it’s not a work product,” Sonnenberg said. “Honestly, it shouldn’t be like this. You should not need a CORA application. Whatever the request, forward it. This is how it should work. It’s part of my job. You shouldn’t have to pay for me to copy these emails, when in fact I’m just forwarding them. »

Inaugural class

Democratic Representative Lisa Cutter and Democratic Senator Chris Hansen each received the Champion of a Free Press award Thursday from the Colorado Press Association at the opening ceremony of the group’s annual convention.

Sen. John Cooke and Rep. Matt Soper joined Sonnenberg as Republican recipients of the Defender of a Free Press award.

Democrats receiving the Defender of a Free Press award included Representatives Judy Amabile, Chris Kennedy, Marc Snyder, Tom Sullivan, Shannon Bird and Dylan Roberts.

Governor Jared Polis also attended the awards ceremony.

Sonnenberg has been named Colorado Representative of the Year and Colorado Legislator of the Year by various organizations, in addition to a litany of other honors he has received throughout his legislative career.