Craig The Craig Daily Press recently looked into a possible violation of Colorado Sunshine Law following a meeting about sage grouse conservation.
The meeting, which took place at American Legion Post 62 following Tuesday’s tour of Moffat County land by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and United States Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, was closed off to Daily Press government reporter Erin Fenner.
Fenner said she was “under the impression” the meeting was open to the public and was therefore open to the press. A man present whom Fenner believed to be representing Sec. Jewell told Fenner the meeting was closed by a request from Jewell.
Fenner said Moffat County commissioners, all of whom were in attendance Tuesday, had recommended she attend the sage grouse meeting earlier that day. Additionally, upon Fenner’s return to the CDP newsroom, Commissioner John Kinkaid called her during the meeting to ask her to return.
However, when she arrived at the American Legion, she was again asked to leave by the same unidentified man.
Kinkaid confirmed he had contacted Fenner during the meeting in order to speak with those involved.
He said the commissioners were not responsible for setting up the meeting — which also included representatives from the state, Craig City Council, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, the Bureau of Land Management and community members, among others — but he was unclear why the meeting was closed.
“We weren’t talking about anything sensitive, it was just general give-and-take, comments and questions,” he said.
A representative from Hickenlooper’s office sent an email to the Daily Press saying Jewell had asked that the meeting be closed to press to “help foster an open and frank discussion.”
The Colorado Sunshine Law for open meetings states that meetings of a local public body with a quorum or three or more members in which public business is discussed are open.
Both Fenner and CDP Editor Noelle Leavitt Riley cited the Sunshine Law to those at the meeting. Leavitt Riley also went to the American Legion after Fenner was turned away a second time, finding the doors locked and the meeting over by the time she was allowed to enter.
Leavitt Riley also attempted to bring up the Sunshine Law with Jewell in the parking lot, saying the secretary did not acknowledge whether or not she had violated the law.
“It sets a bad precedent for the federal government to come into communities and say a meeting is closed when it’s a meeting of public interest,” she said.
The Daily Press recently spoke with legal counsel representing the Colorado Press Association about the issue.
Attorney Steve Zansberg said government officials at the federal level are not subject to state laws about open meetings. Additionally, the governor, as a single government official, is not considered a public body and therefore not subject to the Sunshine Law.
Even so, the decision to open the meeting to the public and not the press defeated the intent, Zansberg said.
“The press is the same as the public,” he said.
Kinkaid said he felt the insistence for keeping the meeting closed was “odd” and “served no useful purpose.”
“It would be beneficial to get more information out and to let reporters carry the whole story,” he said. “If anything, you’d want to bend over backward and be transparent and make the public feel like their voices are being heard and that there’s an openness there.”
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.