County, governor meeting in question
A Friday morning meeting among the Moffat County Commission, Gov. Bill Ritter and other county representatives may have violated Colorado state law.
Colorado Press Association legal counsel Chris Beall said the meeting was a clear violation of open meeting law because the county commission did not notify the public of the meeting 24 hours in advance.
However, Moffat County officials and the governor's office aren't so sure.
County representatives said they considered the meeting to be either legal, or that the intent of the meeting was not meant to be illegal. Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer also questioned if the meeting fell under the guidelines of open meetings law.
"It's not an automatic that any meeting needs public notice," he said.
The meeting in question occurred a little after 10 a.m. in a side room at the Boys & Girls Club of Craig, before Ritter conducted a town hall meeting, held in the gymnasium at the same location.
According to state statute, public meetings are "any meeting at which the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation, or formal action occurs, or at which a majority or quorum of the body is in attendance, shall be held only after full and timely notice to the public."
The timeframe of that public notice shall be "no less than 24 hours prior to the holding of that meaning."
The commissioners post public notices at the Moffat County Courthouse, where the commissioners' offices are located.
As of 8 a.m. Friday, no notice of the meeting had been given by the commissioners office. In order to meet state law, according to Beall, the notice would have to have been posted by 10 a.m. Thursday. The Daily Press became aware of the meeting Friday morning and attended.
There were no members of the public in attendance.
"It is an illegal meeting because it violated the (open meetings law) statute by not posting the notice in advance of the meeting," Beall said, adding that the only time 24-hour notice is not required is when a situation is deemed an emergency, such as a natural disaster that affects government business.
"An emergency is something that is unplanned. I'm assuming they've been planning the governor's visit for quite a while."
Bonnie Roesink, the 14th Judicial District Attorney, said she set up the meeting Thursday, and that according to her interpretation of the law, the meeting was not a violation.
"It does not meet the definition of meaning convened to discuss public business," she said. "I set up the meeting so the governor could get to know our commissioners, and that we would have a better rapport with our governor. : There weren't any decisions made."
Beall said the problem with that argument is that the statute isn't limited to decisions.
"(The fact that they) were there makes it a meeting for which there is a notice requirement," he said, referring to the second part of the statute.
County Commission chairman Saed Tayyara acknowledged that notice wasn't put up in the correct timeframe. It was an "honest to God mistake," he said.
"We confess that we didn't have 24 hours posted," he said. "It was a mistake. : It was overlooked."
He also countered that no decisions were made; therefore, the public notice was not needed.
"We didn't make a decision, (Ritter) didn't make a decision, I didn't make a decision," he said. ": We didn't make any decisions. We talked about the issues. Period."
Commissioner Tom Gray said he was unsure if the open meetings law was violated, but that the "intent was not to in any way violate any rules."
"My gut reaction is that intent is pretty important," Gray said. "We intended to try to patch things up with the governor and mend some fences : Certainly it wasn't our intent to violate any rules."
Commissioner Tom Mathers could not be reached for comment.
Beall said intent has no legal bearing on whether the law was broken.
"Clearing the air is one of the most common rationales that boards invoke as to why they don't want the public to be present," Beall said. "There is no basis under the open meetings law to prevent the public from attending such meetings.
"The fact that there wasn't a notice means that members of the public who might have wanted to come have had their rights infringed," he added.
- Jerry Raehal/Daily Press writer
Craig Business leaders, political leaders and community members from Moffat and Routt counties didn't let Gov. Bill Ritter come to Craig without asking tough questions.
Vermillion Basin, health care and education came up quick and often.
How will state government help schools that receive the least amount of funding, asked Pete Bergmann, Moffat County School District superintendent.
How will the state help meet health care needs in a unique rural area like Yampa Valley, asked Carl Gills, Yampa Valley Medical Center chief executive officer
Will the state bend its ear to local voices when they ask for drilling in Vermillion Basin, and how will it address immigration, Moffat County resident Sandy Orgoglioso asked.
Ritter welcomed the questions and committed to hearing voices across the state on all issues.
"You are a priority," Ritter told a group of business representatives early Friday morning. It was a sentiment he echoed in meetings throughout the day.
Education and health care, the governor cautioned, are two issues that might require ballot initiatives to generate more tax revenue.
In light of that, Ritter was not sure extra funds would be available.
"There's no appetite among voters to go in and change the Constitution," Ritter said regarding the Tax Payer's Bill of Rights, which requires statewide popular votes to raise taxes
"As big as the problem is, and as much effect as these problems have, there's no appetite among voters," he said.
Ritter listened to every voice, but did not move from his original positions when critiqued, particularly regarding energy exploration in the Vermillion Basin.
He met with all three Moffat County commissioners before addressing the public at the Boys & Girls Club of Craig.
Relations became strained between the governor's administration and the commissioners recently when Ritter suspended negotiations about energy drilling in the Vermillion Basin. The commissioners openly support energy exploration because they say it is an integral component of the local economy.
"I think I have a role as governor to the entire state, and Moffat County partly as a subplot, to what I see around the state," Ritter said. "Let's be prudent. Let's go forward. Let's understand this is a $23 billion industry, and let's let it thrive. But let's pay attention to the impact."
The cost-to-benefit ratio does not support drilling at this time, Ritter said. Recent Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, studies have shown Vermillion Basin contains only two percent of the oil and gas available in Moffat County, he said.
"For as little as 2 percent of the resources in the county," Ritter said, "I didn't think the benefit was enough for the cost to tap into the resources of a place that previously had gone untouched."
Commissioner Saed Tayyara disputed the BLM findings and said there is no sure scientific fact behind the two-percent estimate.
Commissioners Tom Gray and Tom Mathers asked the governor not to sacrifice Moffat County for the sake of the Front Range.
The most important thing moving forward is open, frank dialogue, Gray said.
Moffat County's people and leadership aren't that far away from the governor's position, he added, and the impact on wildlife and the environment are a concern for everybody.
However, the impact on wildlife shouldn't be a higher priority than the people of Moffat County, Mathers said.
"Please, don't protect Moffat County into starvation," he said. "It's our way of making a living."