Facing a legal challenge from a pair of citizen groups, Garfield County commissioners admitted in September that their participation in a March 27 closed-door meeting in Vernal, Utah, with elected officials from three states and energy industry representatives was not properly noticed.
The challenge was brought by the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the Western Colorado Congress, which also questioned whether the topic of the meeting was appropriate for an executive session under open meetings laws. The meeting produced a draft policy statement and legal position on oil shale development on federal lands.
The Vernal meeting was hosted by the Uintah County, Utah, commissioners, and was organized in part by Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
The Garfield Board of County Commissioners responded to the legal challenge by rescinding a resolution that came out of the Vernal meeting, which the board had adopted at an April 9 meeting following several hours of public comments.
The strongly-worded resolution opposed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's plans to reduce the amount of acreage available for oil shale leasing in parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, from about 2 million acres under a 2008, Bush-era plan, to about half a million acres offered by federal land managers under the Obama administration.
Critics said the local commissioners had their minds made up on the resolution before holding the April 9 meeting.
All three Garfield County commissioners attended the Vernal meeting, constituting an official meeting of the board. The commissioners later agreed that, although the date and location of the meeting was properly posted, the time and purpose was not provided.
"I think we went [to Vernal] with good intentions," Commissioner Mike Samson said at the September meeting. "I believe it's in the best interests of the county to resolve this, so we're not wasting our time [in court]."
The lawsuit challenging the legality of the Vernal meeting was later settled. The participation by commissioners from Garfield and other counties also drew criticism from Common Cause of Colorado.
The bigger issue of oil shale policy became a key issue in the November election when two county commissioner seats were decided. Republican incumbents Samson and John Martin ended up winning re-election over Democratic challengers Aleks Briedis and Sonja Linman, respectively.
Briedis and Linman had argued that the BLM's plan to reduce the acreage available for oil shale research and development in northwest Colorado, including portions of Garfield County, provided a more measured approach. The incumbents countered that more lands needed to be made available in order to reach commercial scale production, as well as to provide jobs and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Following their re-election, Martin and Samson joined Jankovsky in filing a formal protest to the BLM's decision to reduce the amount of acreage available for oil shale leasing in Colorado from more than 300,000 acres to about 26,000 acres. Several other counties that participated in the Vernal meeting have filed similar protests.