Glenwood Springs Post Independent Opinion
Friday, May 11, 2012
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In late March, the Garfield Board of County Commissioners traveled to Vernal, Utah, to attend a three-state discussion among county officials over a proposed federal policy on oil shale development.
What emerged from the meeting, which included a closed-door executive session, was a strongly worded joint resolution that the three Garfield County commissioners formally adopted on April 9.
We have three bones to pick: one over a quorum of the commissioners attending an unnoticed meeting to discuss public policy, a second over their sitting in on the closed-door session, and a third over their hidebound stance taken in the resolution itself.
In the commissioners’ defense, they did discuss traveling together to Vernal at their regular March 19 board meeting, and acting county manager Drew Gorgey told them it would be publicly noticed as a work session. As best we can tell, while the intent was expressed, the notice was never formally posted.
Our state has an open meetings law to protect the public’s right to know what elected officials are saying and doing. Under that law, anytime a quorum of an elected body meets, it must be posted and open to the public. (More on executive sessions in a moment.)
The county appears to have violated state law by failing to formally post a notice of the meeting. This is not a capital offense, but it shouldn’t be brushed off as inconsequential. The meeting led to the development of the county’s formal position on federal oil shale leasing — a matter that could have a large impact on the people, economy and landscape of Garfield County.
Our second bone is the conscious choice by all three commissioners to stay at the Vernal meeting when it became a closed-door executive session, at the behest of the hosting Uintah County commissioners.
It’s been described as a discussion over legal strategies and possible litigation; sitting in the meeting were state of Utah officials and oil shale industry representatives and supporters.
Under Colorado’s open meetings law, which the commissioners are bound to follow whether they are in Glenwood Springs, Vernal or on their next trip to Tahiti, executive sessions are allowed for three topics: personnel, real estate or pending litigation. Before going behind closed doors, a board must state its planned topic.
We don’t think cooking up a lawsuit against the federal government over its oil shale policies can be considered pending litigation, and our commissioners didn’t go through the motions of justifying their participation in the executive session.
The commissioners go into executive sessions often enough to know when and how to properly do so, but they seem to have left their better judgment behind.
Finally, as we have said before in this space, the oil shale leasing resolution signed by the county is unrealistic and inflammatory, and opens the door to a full-speed-ahead approach to oil shale development.
Although we don’t know what was said in the secret Vernal meeting, it stiffened the commissioners’ resolve enough to prompt their signing the resolution with only modest changes, putting them out of step with many of their constituents.
Secret sessions are a bad idea, and it’s even worse when they spawn bad policy.