Groups sue over closed-door Vernal meeting
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Two Western Slope citizens groups have filed a lawsuit alleging the Garfield County commissioners violated Colorado’s Sunshine Law by meeting behind closed doors with industry representatives and other elected officials in Vernal, Utah, in March to draft oil shale policy.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Garfield District Court by the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA) and the Western Colorado Congress (WCC).
It asks a judge to rule that the commissioners violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by convening in executive session as part of a March 27 meeting hosted by the Uintah County, Utah, commissioners.
A unified political statement regarding oil shale leasing on federal lands that was later approved unanimously by the Garfield commissioners and forwarded to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management should also be declared null and void, the lawsuit states.
“The county commissioners’ actions were illegal, and after months of public outcry they still have not responded to our complaints that the public was shut out of this discussion,” GVCA president Leslie Robinson told the Post Independent on Monday.
“Oil shale development needs to have a full public discussion, because of the socio-economic and environmental impacts and decisions that could ‘moonscape’ western Garfield County,” she said. “Our commissioners put special interests ahead of the public.”
The GVCA and WCC have both been active on energy issues for several years. They are being represented in the lawsuit by Denver attorney Stephen Zansberg, who specializes in open meetings and public records law.
Zansberg also represents the Post Independent and its parent company, Colorado Mountain News Media, on matters related to media law, open meetings and public records, but the newspaper is not a party in this case.
The Vernal meeting was attended by county commissioners from several Colorado, Utah and Wyoming counties.
Also in attendance were several oil shale industry representatives, some of whom Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he personally invited.
All three Garfield County commissioners attended as well. However, according to the lawsuit, the meeting was not properly posted locally in advance, as the open meetings law requires.
The commissioners also failed to announce the reasons for going into executive session, which the lawsuit claims were outside the scope of the law’s provisions.
Afterwards, at a regular Garfield Board of County Commissioners meeting on April 9 in Glenwood Springs, the commissioners essentially “rubber-stamped” the resolution that had been crafted in the Vernal meeting, the lawsuit claims.
Substantial public comment was taken at the April 9 meeting before the formal vote was taken.
The county’s resolution is critical of a BLM decision to reduce the amount of federal lands available for leasing for oil shale development in the three states, from about 2 million acres in a 2008 plan to 462,000 acres in the new plan.
It also says the BLM’s decision will negatively impact energy development and jobs creation on the Western Slope.
Garfield County Manager Andrew Gorgey, who was county attorney at the time of the meeting and still serves as special legal counsel to the commissioners on certain matters, had not seen the lawsuit Monday afternoon and declined comment.
A public records request by Colorado Common Cause earlier this summer uncovered numerous emails and other correspondence between elected officials and industry reps suggesting the meeting was illegal.
Uintah County officials have since acknowledged that the meeting was not adequately noticed on their part. Uintah commissioners rescinded the BLM resolution, but then re-adopted it after taking public comments at a recent public meeting.
Garfield County commissioners have also been asked to rescind their action from the April 9 meeting.
More than that, Robinson said a full discussion of the issues around oil shale development needs to take place before any recommendations are made about large-scale oil shale development.
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Eastbound Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon remains closed Monday evening due to a wreck on the east side of the canyon near Dotsero.