Press association scolds Interior chief over meeting

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Read the full text of the letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at GJSentinel.com



The Colorado Press Association admonished Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for closing a public meeting in Craig to reporters trying to observe the interaction between her and people who wanted to address her about the greater sage-grouse.

Officials prevented Craig Daily Press reporter Erin Fenner from entering the hall in which Jewell was meeting with the public, among them residents and environmental and industry representatives.

Jewell was listening to comments on plans by the Bureau of Land Management to adjust the way it manages lands in northwest Colorado to avoid a listing of the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species.

In barring reporters from the meeting, Jewell violated the First Amendment freedom of the press and caused the Moffat County Commission to violate Colorado open-meetings law, press association attorney Steve Zansberg wrote to Jewell.

The letter “clearly states that the secretary made a mistake and she needs to pay more attention to these sorts of things when she meets with people in communities across America,” Craig Daily Press Managing Editor Noelle Leavitt Riley said. “I hope she learns a lesson from this experience.”

An Interior Department spokesman confirmed receipt of the letter, but declined further comment.

“Members of the press, like Ms. Fenner, are, under the law, members of the public,” Zansberg wrote. “Thus your department spokesman, Blake Androff’s emailed statement to The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that ‘No member of the public was turned away’ is factually incorrect.”

A reporter from Craig radio station KRAI also was turned away from the meeting.

A spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, who attended the Craig meeting but was unaware that reporters had been barred from attendance, said Jewell closed the meeting to reporters to facilitate discussion.

By excluding Fenner “on the sole basis that she was a reporter violated her rights. and the rights of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment were violated,” Zansberg said.

Colorado law likewise was violated, Zansberg noted.

“Under Colorado’s Open Meetings law, it is no more lawful to exclude all members of the press from the commissioners’ meeting than it would be to exclude all people who are left-handed or all people shorter than six feet in height,” Zansberg wrote.

The Moffat County Commission had posted a notice of the meeting and members had invited the public to attend the meeting with Jewell, the letter noted.

The press association said it believed that closing the meeting to reporters “was not the result of any intentional effort by the county commissioners nor by your office deliberately to violate the rights of the press and/or the public,” Zansberg wrote. “We attribute the unfortunate set of events to a basic breakdown in communication between the Moffat County commissioners and your office regarding the parameters of the meeting.”

Jewell oversees two agencies dealing with the greater sage-grouse. One Interior Department agency, the Bureau of Land Management, is considering ways to avoid an endangered listing for the bird by another Interior Department agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Local government officials and the energy industry have warned that an endangered listing would be calamitous for the economy of the West Slope.

The state and several local governments are urging the BLM to accommodate various cooperative efforts already underway to preserve the bird.

Leavitt Riley said she hoped Jewell “would continue looking objectively at the sage-grouse issue while realizing she made a mistake.”


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