Task force meeting/tour was “clearly a violation” of Sunshine Law

Sunshine law blindsAs you recall on Thursday three members of Governor Hickenlooper’s and Congressman Jared Polis’s blue ribbon task force paid a visit to Battlement Mesa/Parachute. Task force co-chair Gwen Lachelt and members Sara Barwinski and Russell George were treated to a tour of 3 well pads. Before the tour, a meeting was held. The meeting wasn’t publicly noticed. That I know of, the media and the public was not invited. GVCA chair Leslie Robinson was invited.

On Friday, in my post about the meeting/tour  I asked the question: Was this a violation of the Colorado Sunshine Law?

Read it for yourself:  Colorado Sunshine Law

The Colorado Sunshine Law generally requires that any state or local governmental body that meets to discuss public business or to take formal action do so in meetings that are open to the public. Under the law (§ 24-6-402, C.R.S.), “meeting” refers to any kind of gathering, convened to discuss public business, whether in person, by telephone, electronically, or by other means of communication …

… All meetings of two or more members of any state public body where any public business is discussed must be open to the public …

… The Law defines government body as all branches of state and local government including all boards, commissions, etc.

… According to ground rules established for the task force, notice of its meetings is posted ahead of time on the DNR website and they are open to the public …

Dennis Webb was the only member of the media who was present for the meeting and tour. According to Webb, the Daily Sentinel “sought and was granted permission to join the tour.” When I read about it in the paper on Friday morning, I felt the meeting/tour was a violation of the Colorado Sunshine Law. I learned Webb was exploring that question as well.

How ironic that the only articles about the task force meeting/tour, which was a violation of the Sunshine Law, are written by the only reporter “allowed” in, and are for subscribers only. But that’s a whole nother story …

Gas field meeting by task force broke law, Scott claims

State Rep. Ray Scott says a recent tour of Garfield County oil and gas facilities by members of a new state task force violated Colorado’s open meetings law.

Others are also questioning the state’s handling of the tour, which Department of Natural Resource officials say was simply an educational event where no deliberations occurred, and that circumstances prevented general public attendance.

Members plan another such tour this week in Longmont …

… “In my opinion it’s clearly a violation,” [Rep Ray Scott] said. “The statute’s pretty clear. I don’t see the wiggle room in the statute. They’re not supposed to be doing that. It’s supposed to be open to the public if they do it” …

… Lachelt referred questions on the matter to DNR. Asked about the handling of the tour before it occurred Thursday, DNR spokesman Todd Hartman issued a statement saying, “Due to safety requirements, logistical constraints and the plain fact that there are real-world limits to the number of people and vehicles we can bring to — and accommodate at — discreet, privately operated industrial locations in rural locations, we’ve had to limit to the tour itself to task force members, some associated staff and media. This is an educational event for members who choose to attend, not a formal task force meeting, and there will be no deliberations among the members who attend. Presentations provided before the tour are open to the public.”

Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, who spoke to the task force during the meeting preceding the tour, said members of the alliance and the Battlement Concerned Citizens group “are concerned that task force members and DNR staff were given a several-hour private tour of local rigs/production sites, especially when we were limited to five minutes to express citizen views.”

She’s concerned that citizens didn’t get the same access to task force members that industry did.

Steven Zansberg, a Denver attorney who represents the Colorado Press Association and specializes in media and public access to government information and proceedings, said that technically, even such information-gathering meetings should be open to the public.

DNR Executive Director Mike King said he’s glad energy companies were willing to accommodate the one reporter who asked to accompany the tour. He said he expects that the department will probably see what kind of media interest there is in the Longmont tour and at least try to accommodate journalists who can report back to the community on what they saw.

But he pointed to the challenges of opening up tours by energy operators more broadly to the public.

“If we say, gee, operator, we’re going to need you to accommodate 100 people, they’re going to say no, we’re not going to give you this tour,” he said …

… Scott believes the issue is black-and-white, and notes that the state Legislature must comply with the open meetings law.

“We’re held to a pretty high standard here, but apparently the governor’s office doesn’t think that applies,” he said …

I have to dispute DNR Executive Director Mike King’s comment about not being able to accommodate 100 people on a tour.

In October 2012, at the Western Colorado Congress annual meeting in Battlement Mesa, they held a gasfield tour. I don’t remember the exact number of people but it was a busload so about 50-60. The tour could have easily accommodated another busload. And we didn’t just visit three well pads. We traveled from Battlement Mesa to Morrisania Mesa to the Williams gas processing plant north of Parachute.

Then in December 2012, about 60+ activists from around the state, plus media piled into vehicles for a gaspatch tour near Tommy Thompson’s old place on Porcupine Creek, west of Rifle.

Crowd-size gaspatch tours are totally doable. For advice on how to manage it, King can get more information from the folks at Western Colorado Congress. Or maybe he could just send Dave Ludlam over. I’m sure they’d have some tips for him.

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2 Comments on “Task force meeting/tour was “clearly a violation” of Sunshine Law”

  1. Debra Says:

    Why is there no mention of the Parachute Fire Dept being asked to set up chairs for 100 people to attend the meeting, (one that was not publicly announced) and that a person at the fire dept. said that people started arriving for the non-meeting at 10:30 am, creating problems for the fire dept. with parking, etc.

  2. Peggy Tibbetts Says:

    It is my understanding that the majority of the “public” at the meeting was oil and gas workers because they were the only ones who knew about it.

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