State of the County event attendance rule questioned |

State of the County event attendance rule questioned

Brian Smith

Craig resident Ken Wergin appealed to the Craig City Council on Tuesday night.

His request regarded the Craig Chamber of Commerce's State of the County 2011 event Wednesday at the Holiday Inn of Craig.

Wergin asked council members to do something about a Chamber board decision that would have prevented him from attending the event. After discussion, the city council stated that State of the County was the Chamber's event and not under the city's authority.

Chamber executive director Christina Oxley said in previous years residents wanting to attend the event – which included a State of the County address and a required State of the City address – could do so in a limited capacity if they could not afford a ticket.

This year, however, Oxley said the Chamber board voted to contain the event to those with a ticket, which cost $40 for Chamber members and $50 for non-members.

Wergin said he couldn't afford the ticket price and knew three or four other community members in a similar situation who were disappointed by the Chamber's decision on attendance.

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Wergin said he could "care less" about dinner at the event. He said he wanted to hear the various speeches, including one from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"I want to know the goings on of the city, county and the state, if it's Hickenlooper, and how it is all going to work together because this is one of the cases where the three entities are together and that is very rare," he said after Tuesday's council meeting. "Since I go to a lot of the public meetings, yeah, I am pretty upset because it is a combination of those three that would really be ideal to hear what is going on."

Wergin was able to attend the event. He received a ticket through the Craig Daily Press, which was a State of the County co-sponsor.

The newspaper decided to purchase tickets for residents who wanted to attend State of the County but could not afford the ticket price.

The newspaper purchased 10 tickets for residents.

Wergin said he would have stood outside the event to hear the various speeches if he hadn't received a ticket, he said.

"My temper got up a little bit there and I was very happy that the Press had a ticket … because, you know, I really wanted to be able to see it," he said "I just hope there wasn't anybody else that wanted to come that couldn't."

Daily Press Publisher Bryce Jacobson also addressed the city council Tuesday about the Chamber's admission policy. He asked council members to lobby the Chamber to "change their mind so that people could have access whether or not they purchased a ticket."

"Part of the newspaper industry's role in the communities that they publish in is to be the watchdog for the community with regards to open government," Jacobson said. "One way that we could have assisted yesterday before the meeting ever started was to purchase tickets and I wanted to do that so that we could make at least a little bit of a dent in those people that weren't going to be allowed to attend so that they could actually attend."

Jacobson also spoke to the city council Tuesday night about how open meeting laws factored into the Chamber's decision regarding admission.

He said he felt the council's participation in the event was in violation of those laws.

Jacobson's contention is supported by Chris Beall, legal counsel for the Colorado Press Association.

"If there is a discussion of public business at the gathering, and if there are three or more members of the city council or two or more members of the county commission, then it is a meeting that must be open to the public and charging for tickets to be present to hear the discussion of public business is a violation of the statute," Beall said.

Oxley said she didn't feel State of the County would be violating the law and stood behind the board's decision Thursday.

Those she spoke to, including an attorney, she said, indicated "that it clearly wasn't an official meeting, there were no actions taken, that it was a Chamber event (and) not a city event or a county event," she said.

"It's a policy that has been known for quite a while in regards to this event and I think the board is going to discuss it going into next year's (event)," she said. "But again, with the governor being there and then the buffet style, we just couldn't allow overruns."

Jacobson said he knew of the Chamber's intention to not allow people to attend without a ticket.

"We apologized on Wednesday for this, but we assumed that the Chamber would do what was right and we didn't follow through on it as we should have, and I am forever sorry for that," he said. "However … whether I found out a minute before the meeting was started, 10 minutes after the meeting started, or four months ahead of when the meeting started, it doesn't change the fact that excluding the public from access to government (isn't) acceptable."

Oxley said she didn't see anyone from the public standing outside of the event to listen to the speeches and believes no one was let into the event without a ticket.

"Up until yesterday, we hadn't had a single call from somebody either asking if they could attend or complaining about not being able to attend," she said. "So, it was pretty much a created situation, I think.

"Again, this information is available. There certainly wasn't any effort to exclude people from getting this information. It is available in a variety of different ways."

Jacobson said he "would imagine" the Daily Press will take further action against the involved governmental agencies regarding State of the County.

"We do not want the taxpayers to have to pay legal fees," he said. "So, our first attempt to remedy this situation will be outside of legal action."

However, the newspaper hasn't ruled out legal action, Jacobson said, and will meet with its attorneys to "decide what the appropriate course of action is."

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