GarCo closed-door shale meeting raises concern
Garfield County is coming under increasing scrutiny over whether it violated Colorado’s open meetings law when its commissioners met in a closed-door meeting about oil shale March 27 in Vernal, Utah.
Two watchdog groups, Colorado Common Cause and the Checks and Balances Project, have questioned the county’s actions in the meeting and are also more broadly criticizing the secret nature of the meeting, attended by county officials from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The meeting led to a draft resolution counties later adopted that lambasted the Bureau of Land Management for its proposal to sharply reduce acreage potentially available for commercial oil shale leasing.
Garfield County is drawing particular attention because all three of its commissioners attended. That constitutes a quorum and has raised questions over whether the Vernal event constituted an official Garfield meeting requiring advance public notice, and whether the commissioners had the legal right to meet behind closed doors.
Garfield Commissioner John Martin said Monday that the three “went there for informational purposes.” But Matt Garrington, co-director of the Checks and Balances Project, told the commissioners that contrasts with Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis having characterized the event as a political strategy meeting, and Uintah County, Utah, commissioners having called it a legal strategy session.
Colorado Common Cause last week filed requests for information related to the meeting in all three states, partly to find out who all participated. Meis said he was the only Mesa commissioner to attend the meeting, and only a commissioner apiece attended from Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. Had more than one Mesa commissioner attended, the county would have had to post the meeting in advance, he said.
He said the meeting began as informational, and as counties discovered they had similar views, they thought it would be good for the counties to independently consider resolutions. No decisions were made that day, Meis said.
Martin and Garfield County attorney Drew Gorgey noted that Garfield later adopted its resolution after a public meeting for which advance notice was given. Gorgey said he believes a meeting notice was issued for the March 27 meeting, but a copy of the notice hadn’t been found Monday.
Chris Beall, a Colorado attorney who focuses partly on open-meeting matters, said the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that a meeting is subject to open meetings law if it involves a discussion of business over which a county has authority. That applies even if officials are attending someone else’s out-of-state meeting, he said.
If Garfield provided notice of the meeting, it acknowledged it was subject to Colorado open meetings law, Beall said. Then it would have had to publicly vote to meet in private, and would have needed a legal reason for doing so, when such a reason was lacking in this case, he said.