Rob Douglas: A not so open discussion
January 23, 2014
By conducting a public meeting concerning sage grouse conservation while excluding the press, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Gov. John Hickenlooper did not "foster an open and frank discussion." Instead, they've raised questions about their commitment to a free and unfettered press as enshrined in the U.S. and Colorado constitutions.
As reported by the Craig Daily Press, Jewell and Hickenlooper, along with other county, state and federal officials, toured Bord Gulch Ranch in Moffat County on Tuesday. The tour, which included reporters, was in response to requests made by residents of Northwest Colorado at a meeting with Hickenlooper last November that he personally invite Jewell to Colorado to witness first-hand how ranchers and farmers are protecting sage grouse habitat.
Hickenlooper's fulfillment of that request is commendable. Seemingly, his two trips to Moffat County in less than 60 days have been well-received by local residents who've joined statewide concerns that Hickenlooper has been ignoring issues of import to rural Coloradans. As a relevant aside, those concerns have led to the formation of a bipartisan rural caucus in the state Legislature.
However, after the tour, Jewell and Hickenlooper acted in a manner contrary to the inclusive image they were trying to project by barring reporters from what, under any fair assessment, was an open public meeting at American Legion Post 62 in Craig.
In addition to Jewell and Hickenlooper, participants at the meeting included all three Moffat County commissioners, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the head of the Bureau of Land Management, plus other representatives from the state, Craig City Council, Routt, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, and community members. In total, there were more than 40 people at the meeting.
However, when reporters from the Craig Daily Press and KRAI Radio attempted to enter the meeting, they were told the meeting was closed to the press.
According to the Craig Daily Press, government reporter Erin 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 Secretary Jewell told Fenner the meeting was closed by a request from Jewell."
In an interview with this column, Mike Fuller, a reporter for radio station KRAI in Craig, said that when he attempted to enter the meeting along with members of the public, he was blocked by an unidentified official who recognized Fuller as a reporter and stated, "I'm not allowed to let you in."
Given that all three Moffat County commissioners were in the meeting, Fenner and Fuller — along with Craig Daily Press Managing Editor Noelle Leavitt Riley, who came to the meeting site after Fenner had been turned away a second time — repeatedly cited Colorado's Open Meetings law to officials, including Jewell, as the reason the press should have been allowed to attend the meeting.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and no member of the press was in attendance at the meeting.
In an initial email responding to questions from the Craig Daily Press about why Fenner had been barred from the meeting, Eric Brown, Hickenlooper's director of communications, stated that Jewell asked that the meeting be closed to the press to "help foster an open and frank discussion." On Thursday, responding to follow-up questions from the Craig Daily Press, Brown wrote, "The governor went into the meeting with every expectation that it was open to reporters. He didn't know your reporter was asked to leave until I told him the day after."
While those two statements are difficult to reconcile, from a First Amendment perspective, it may not matter. The constitutional question is whether, in fact, the meeting was open or closed to the public.
Arguably, based on the observations of reporters from the Craig Daily Press and KRAI, the meeting was open to the public. And if the meeting was open to the public, the press cannot legally be excluded.
In addition to the legal issues raised, this was an unforced political blunder on the part of Jewell and Hickenlooper. Hopefully they both will acknowledge that excluding the press from Tuesday's meeting was wrong and take steps to make certain that it never happens again.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com