County argues location

Routt officials want justice center west of town

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Building a justice center in downtown Steamboat Springs is not an option because it will be too costly, take too long to build, offer less security and impede efforts to expand county offices, county officials argued in a Dec. 15 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The letter was in response to the Corps' announcement Dec. 2 that it planned to deny the county's application for a wetlands permit to build the justice center west of town next to the Routt County Jail. The Corps said the reason for the denial was that the downtown site is a practicable alternative to the west-of-town site.

Routt County also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Corps, asking for all records of correspondence about the justice center between the Army Corps and any third party, including the Friends of the Justice Center. That request came in a Dec. 21 letter. The Friends of the Justice Center favor the downtown site.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today obtained the letters Tuesday from the Corps of Engineers after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal agency. The newspaper filed a similar request with the county, but the county refused to provide the documents.

Routt County has been trying to get an Army Corps permit to fill 1.4 acres of wetlands at the west-of-town site, but Army Corps officials wrote in the Dec. 2 letter that, that permit likely would be denied because the justice center could be built downtown.

Tony Curtis, the Frisco Regulatory Office chief for the Sacramento District of the Corps of Engineers, said the Corps of Engineers will consider the county's recent letters, as well as any other information it submits in the coming days, and then make a decision about whether to approve or deny the permit.

The county's Dec. 15 letter reiterates points that county commissioners and officials have made before, such as the cost difference of $1.5 million to $4.5 million between the downtown and west sites. The west site would be more secure, would provide the courts and county offices downtown more room to expand and would help the county build the justice center by the fall of 2006, according to the letter.

Routt County has been trying to secure the Army Corps permit for the past 1 1/2 years. The permit is the last step the county needs to break ground on the $15.5-million, 52,000-square-foot center.

Sullivan said the county will not withdraw its permit application, a common step applicants take when they have been notified that their request is likely to be denied. If the Corps of Engineers does issue a denial, the county commissioners will determine their next steps, which could include an appeal or legal action, Sullivan said.

In addition to the FOIA request filed with the Corps of Engineers, the Pilot & Today filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with the county seeking documents the county has provided to the Corps of Engineers since Dec. 2. But County Attorney John Merrill would not release the information, arguing the letters were protected under attorney-client privilege and that the documents amounted to work product. Merrill said he would need three days to respond in writing to the Pilot & Today's request, but that the request would be denied.

Townsend Anderson of the Friends of the Justice Center got a similar response when he filed an Open Records Act request with the county last week. There has been no correspondence between the county and Army Corps since Dec. 2 that the county is required to disclose under the Open Records Act, County Manager Tom Sullivan wrote in a letter to Anderson dated Jan. 3.

Merrill argued that releasing the information -- to Anderson or to the newspaper -- could damage the county's position in its negotiations with the Corps of Engineers. Merrill said it was his impression that the Army Corps considered such communications confidential and part of a negotiation process. He was surprised to hear that the Corps of Engineers had released the documents to the newspaper.

"We're not trying to hide anything," Merrill said. "Ultimately, what we're trying to do is have the freedom to negotiate and have a discussion with the Army Corps that we're entitled to."

The county, Merrill said, has been trying to make the process "as open as possible without destroying the county's position."

Chris Beall, an attorney with the Denver firm of Faegre and Benson, said that attorney-client privilege only protects communication between an attorney and his or her client, and that he is not aware of any exemption that would let the county withhold documents sent to another agency, even if the county is "negotiating with" that agency.

"This is just general law," said Beall, who has represented the Pilot & Today and many other Colorado newspapers on open records issues. "If a communication between a lawyer and a lawyer's client is disclosed to someone else, it is no longer privileged."

At Tuesday evening's Steamboat Springs City Council meeting, Anderson and former council president Kevin Bennett spoke out against the county for denying Anderson's open records request.

The county's actions are "laughable, illegal, unethical and wrong," Bennet said.

"I am totally shut out of the county from being able to address my government. I am outraged at the way they do business," he said. "They've been meeting in secret for the last month to discuss the courthouse."

"Hearing from the City Council is critical. Hearing from the city of Steamboat Springs is critical," Anderson added. "Your role in this, as a local jurisdiction, is critical, and we really need your support if you believe the location of the court is of interest."

Steamboat Today reporter Christine Metz contributed to this report.

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