GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Garfield County commissioners were more than just an idle participant at a special closed-door meeting in Vernal, Utah, in late March to discuss oil shale policy, a Colorado government watchdog group says.
The meeting produced a unified political statement from counties in three states, which was later sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The letter was critical of the BLM's plan to reduce the amount of federal lands available in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for oil shale research and development.
"Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky organized the Vernal meeting," Colorado Common Cause charged Thursday.
"This, despite claims by the commissioners that it was an informational meeting, and characterizing it as Uintah County's meeting," the group said in a press release.
The statement accompanied the release of more than 450 pages of documents regarding the March 27 meeting, including numerous emails between those involved. The documents were obtained under open records requests in the three states.
Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Elena Nunez said the records confirm that the meeting was organized with the intention of giving politicians and industry representatives the opportunity to create a political and legal strategy to support a Bush-era oil shale plan on western public lands.
"It's outrageous that these counties shut the public out of the meeting but let oil shale lobbyists from Red Leaf and others in the room," Nunez said.
Jankovsky said in a phone interview Thursday that he did help organize the Vernal meeting by personally inviting oil shale companies and other industry representatives.
"I invited some oil shale companies from Colorado, because I wanted them to be present and to be heard," Jankovsky said.
He was joined by fellow commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson in attending the meeting, which constituted a quorum. No other Garfield County government officials attended.
"We have common issues with other counties in the region that we need to talk about," Jankovsky said. "It's not uncommon for us to go to these kinds of meetings."
Common Cause says Garfield County violated Colorado's open meetings laws by remaining in the Vernal meeting when the Uintah commissioners convened in executive session.
"We believe there was a violation and are considering all administrative and legal options," Nunez said.
In a previous email to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, attorney Steven Zansberg, who represents the Post Independent and other newspapers in the state on open meetings and public records issues, agreed that the local commissioners were likely in violation of state law at the Vernal meeting.
"A meeting is any gathering of the public officials at which public business is discussed," Zansberg wrote. "Whether Utah's open meetings law provides for executive sessions for certain matters is irrelevant to the conduct of the Garfield County commissioners, who must conduct their meetings in conformity with Colorado's Open Meetings law, regardless of where those meetings are held."
Jankovsky said he was unaware beforehand that the meeting was to be a private one between the invited government and industry representatives.
He also said it didn't occur to him when the vote was taken by the Uintah commissioners to go into executive session that Garfield County's commissioners should take their own vote.
"If it happens again, I will certainly know to do that, or to have two of us leave the room," he said.
Jankovsky said the statement from Common Cause, as well as previous concerns raised at a recent Garfield County commissioners meeting by Matt Garrington of the group Checks and Balances, are politically motivated.
"This is an election year, I think that's driving a lot of it," Jankovsky said, noting that Garrington was sitting with Garfield County Democratic Party officials when he made his comments.
He said the latest BLM plan to significantly reduce the amount of acreage for oil shale leasing in the three states was also driven by political pressure from environmental groups.
"Groups who are against oil shale development flew to Washington, D.C. in December to lobby Congress and the Department of Interior, and a month later the BLM changed direction," Jankovsky charged.
"I'm only concerned about the welfare of Garfield County, and oil shale development can potentially create jobs in our county in the future," he said.
Nunez said Uintah County is still refusing to disclose minutes from the closed-door meeting.
"What we do know is that politicians gave industry the opportunity to make their mark on these resolutions," she said. "Unfortunately, it's apparent that the public was purposefully and potentially illegally excluded from making theirs."