County commissioners apparently violate state Open Meetings Law

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Two officials continue to talk with attorney during meeting recess

By Ramsey Scott

Two of Jeffco’s county commissioners appeared to violate Colorado’s Open Meetings Law when they continued to discuss a measure involving changes to county regulations while the board was in recess.

The apparent violation occurred Sept. 29 during a public hearing on proposed changes to county regulations governing such things as roadway design, land development and storm drainage. The board went into a short recess after Commissioner Don Rosier asked if the hearing could be postponed to a later date to give the board more time to analyze changes to the proposal.

After the meeting was recessed, Rosier, Commissioner Libby Szabo and County Attorney Ellen Wakeman continued a discussion while the microphones were off. Colorado’s Open Meeting Law states that when a quorum of a public body discusses public business, that discussion must be open to the public and the press.

Wakeman said the three were not discussing legal advice but when the issue could be placed on the board’s calendar. The item needed to go before the commissioners again in a briefing before coming back for a final public hearing.

“We were trying to figure out the exact date so the motion would be clean. It could have been done on the record. But all that was done was discuss the date,” Wakeman said. “All we were doing is trying to figure out how many weeks it would take.”

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said any discussion of public business with a quorum present should be done on the record or in a formal executive session.

“It’s probably a really small thing, but they should be doing those things in the context of the public meeting. It’s an off-the-record conversation,” Roberts said. “I’m not a lawyer, but that is our position: that all discussions should be available to the public to be heard unless they have a reason to go into executive session, which has to be announced.

“Otherwise, you don’t know what they’re whispering about. It could be the smallest thing or it could be something substantial.”

Commission chair Casey Tighe said he called the recess so the commissioners could determine the date to hold the next hearing. While he wasn’t part of the conversation, he said he didn’t believe anything else was discussed.

In June 2014, the county admitted it violated the Open Meetings Law when Tighe and Rosier attended a town hall meeting at the Columbine Library to discuss a possible annexation of Southwest Plaza mall by the town of Bow Mar.

In 2007, the Courier filed a lawsuit against the county when all three commissioners met with county employees without giving notice of the gathering. The settlement required the board to acknowledge the violation and adhere to the law in the future.

In 2009, after then-commissioners Kathy Hartman and Kevin McCasky discussed public business via e-mail, another violation, the county agreed to host a presentation by media attorney Steve Zansberg on the Open Meetings Law for all county officials and members of commissions.

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1035, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine. Check www.HighTimberTimes.com for updates.