Group says Vernal oil shale meeting was illegal
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A Colorado public watchdog group has filed an open records request with Garfield County and several other counties across three states that took part in a closed-door meeting in Utah in late March to discuss federal lands oil shale policy.
“Our local county commissioners shouldn’t be traveling across state lines to meet in secret with industry lobbyists and attorneys,” Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday.
The meeting itself, which was hosted by the Uintah County, Utah, county commissioners in Vernal on March 27, may have been illegal per Utah’s open meetings laws because it was held in executive session, Nunez said.
Any other county that had a quorum of its commissioners attending, which would include Garfield County, may also have been in violation of their state’s open meetings laws, she said.
The meeting produced a draft version of a joint resolution urging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reinstate a Bush-era oil shale policy.
The 2008 plan allocated 2 million acres of public lands for oil shale research and development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The BLM is now re-evaluating the policy, and has come up with a new preferred plan to reduce the acreage to about 462,000 acres. It would include roughly 35,000 acres in northwest Colorado, as opposed to 360,000 acres in the 2008 plan.
Garfield County commissioners, at an April 9 meeting, unanimously adopted a slightly revised version of the joint resolution. The statement served as the county’s official comment to the BLM’s environmental analysis.
The strongly worded resolution accused the BLM, under the Obama administration, of bowing to environmental and wilderness interests in revisiting the oil shale leasing policy.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky confirmed that he and commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson attended the Vernal meeting.
Their intentions to travel to the meeting were disclosed at a March 19 regular Board of County Commissioners meeting, Jankovsky said.
“For our part, we made a few comments, but we were mostly there to listen,” Jankovsky said, characterizing it as an “informational” meeting.
“We did talk with our county attorney about the fact that we were going but that we wouldn’t be making any decisions,” Jankovsky said.
Of the four Colorado counties represented at the meeting, including Garfield, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Moffat, he said only Garfield County had all of its commissioners present.
Garfield County Attorney Andrew Gorgey said he was aware of the commissioners’ attendance at the meeting. However, he said he did not view it as falling under the open meetings laws because it was informational in nature.
“They did not go there to decide anything,” he said.
Rather, the commissioners’ decision on the resolution was made at the April 9 meeting, which was open and which did include public input.
The Vernal meeting was attended by former Bush administration BLM director Kathleen Clarke, who is now executive director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.
Common Cause is also looking into whether oil shale industry lobbyists and attorneys were in attendance at the meeting as well.
An open meetings request has also been filed with the state of Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, Nunez said.
“Our concern from a local standpoint is that it’s important for the public to be able to engage in public policy discussion,” Nunez said.
“We feel public business should be done in public, and it appears in this instance that we had county commissioners crossing state lines, meeting in secret, and not providing transparency to their constituents,” she said.
Nunez said the open records request is to confirm who actually participated in the meeting. She cited a 2004 Colorado Supreme Court ruling in a Costilla County case, which concluded that any meeting convened to discuss action counts as a business meeting. Therefore, it should be subject to open meetings laws, she said.
“For three commissioners to go and participate in a conversation, that indicates very strongly that they were in violation of the open meetings act,” Nunez said.
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