Attorney: Montezuma County Commission Likely Violated Colorado Transparency Laws in June

Aug 3, 2017

The Montezuma County Commissioners likely violated Colorado open meetings law when they met with the Bureau of Land Management to discuss access issues near Summit Ridge in June.

The commissioners, representatives from the BLM, and county staff members took a field trip on June 1st to discuss access to a tract of Bureau of Land Management land near the Summit Ridge Subdivision. Though they invited a reporter from the Cortez Journal, who wrote a detailed story about the trip, the commissioners gave no formal public notice of the meeting beforehand.

On July 24th, residents of the subdivision came to the commissioners’ regular meeting to express their concerns with the apparent outcome of the field trip, which involved a change in road signage and mapping to designate public access to the BLM land.

Attorney Steven Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told KSJD the lack of public notice rendered the meeting illegal. State open meetings law requires any meetings of a quorum of any local public body to be public meetings, and that any meetings are which a majority or quorum of the local body is in attendance “shall be held only after full and timely notice to the public.” The law says that entails posting notice of the meeting in a designated public place no less than 24 hours before the meeting.

No notice was given of the field trip on the county’s website or on the door of the county courthouse, where agendas are usually posted.

According to Montezuma County Natural Resources and Public Lands Coordinator James Dietrich, the county did not intend the field trip to be secret, since inviting the Cortez Journal reporter helped disseminate the information to the public, and not reaching out to other members of the press was an oversight.

Dietrich also said county attorney John Baxter had advised that mentioning the field trip during the county’s regular meeting had provided public notice. Dietrich said county officials did not want to provide broader notice because they were worried about too many people coming to the gathering. He spoke about the difficult logistics of managing such field trips, saying there was not much place for people to park. Dietrich also noted that the meeting was organized by the BLM rather than by the county.

However, Zansberg said the county’s justifications were not sufficient.

“The fact that there isn’t enough room physically for all of the people interested is not a sufficient reason to not provide notice,” Zansberg said.

Also, having a single reporter attend the meeting did not constitute enough transparency.

“The open meetings law requires notice to the public so that they can observe, attend, and witness for themselves – not get a secondhand account,” Zansberg said.

Finally, a verbal announcement of the meeting during a public session does not qualify as public notice, according to the Freedom of Information Coalition’s guide to open meetings. It states “[l]ocal public bodies may comply with “full and timely” by posting a notice in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting.”

Zansberg mentioned two exceptions to the open meetings laws, including one for emergency meetings where public notice would not be timely, and one for minor day-to-day county business. But based on the public interest shown during the July 24th meeting, Zansberg said neither exception would likely qualify.

Zansberg explained that a citizen could have grounds to challenge the commission’s failure to provide public notice in court. In that case, the county attorney would represent the commission, supported by taxpayer dollars, and the plaintiff’s attorney fees would be reimbursed if he or she won the case. A verdict against the county could result in nullification of any business conducted at the meeting and discourage commissioners from repeating the mistake. However, outside of a lawsuit, Zansberg said county commissions are only held accountable by the public.

No citizen has challenged the commission’s lack of notice about the June 6th meeting.

The commissioners said they planned to address the concerns of the residents after the July 24th meeting, so any disagreements about the land management may be resolved. But Zansberg said the lack of transparency in this case was clear.

“Any meeting should be properly noticed,” he said.

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For more analysis of this story, KSJD's Austin Cope and Gail Binkly recorded this discussion: