Pitkin County admits fault in open meetings case
Admitting its failure to comply with the state’s Opening Meetings Law, the Pitkin County government settled a lawsuit where its commissioners were accused of doing public business in private.
The agreement was reached in December. It came after Pagosa Springs attorney Matt Roane filed a court complaint in late October saying the county failed to broadcast the Board of County Commissioners adopting a motion Oct. 20.
That day, commissioners held a public work session that started at 1 p.m. and was streamed on the county’s website and Grassroots TV.
Ahead of the work session, the BOCC had been in an executive session closed to the public. Going into the executive session, however, required a motion and vote from the BOCC. That process is open to the public, but it wasn’t at the October meeting because the county did not broadcast it.
Richard Neiley III, a county attorney, said the virtual platform has created challenges when it comes to government transparency and being fully accessible to the public. Since March, meetings have been under attendance restrictions due to public health orders, which is why the BOCC meetings have been streamed, televised and done over Zoom.
“This whole thing was totally borne out of the need to utilize technology once COVID-19 emerged,” he said Tuesday. “That whole effort (broadcasting public meetings the public could not attend) was to provide a virtual platform for the public, but it was no doubt a learning experience from the start.”
Roane, whose practice functions as a government watchdog regarding transparency and openness, said a Pitkin County resident told him about the meeting lapse.
“A resident called me up said they were bothered by it and didn’t want to put their name there, for obvious reasons,” he said.
So Roane, as both plaintiff and attorney, filed a complaint in Pitkin County District Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the county violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by not broadcasting the public vote to go into executive session.
“What the law requires is that before they go into executive session they’ve got to read out the topic they plan to discuss, then cite a statute pursuant to it and then provide as much information about the purpose of going into the executive session,” he said.
After adopting the motion to enter executive session, commissioners talked about litigation and with an attorney about a solar-power application.
Whatever the nature or topic of the discussions, Roane said the public should have access to whatever county business is being done in public.
“During these times where everybody is having to make adjustments because of COVID and our inability to participate in meetings, I think it’s even more critical for governments to memorialize their meetings,” he said. “Even if we can’t watch them live, we can go back after the fact. It’s just terribly critical that the public has access.”
Since that Oct. 20 meeting and Roane’s lawsuit, the county has changed the way it goes into executive sessions when its meeting are not open to in-person attendance.
One example is the county now broadcasts the BOCC’s votes on motions to go into executive session.
“There is a separate link for the commissioners to convene with any members of the public who want to witness that motion,” Neiley said. “And once that motion is made and approved, the executive session commences on a separate Zoom link only accessible” to commissioners and other people allowed to attend.
The stipulated agreement noted the open-meetings violation was not limited to the one day cited by the complaint.
“Pitkin County hereby further admits and Roane agrees that Pitkin County conducted other Special Meetings and Executive Sessions during and since March 2020, including the October 20, 2020 meeting, in a similar manner that failed to provide members of the public a forum to participate in Special Meetings to hold Executive Sessions,” the agreement said. “Since October 20, 2020, Pitkin County has conducted all Special Meetings for Executive Sessions in a manner that complies with the Colorado Open Meetings Law by providing a public forum — through virtual means — for members of the public to participate in the public portions of those meetings.”
The county also paid $3,497 to Roane for attorney’s and court fees.
Judge Jonathan Pototsky signed the stipulation Dec. 15.
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Despite nearly a month of intense investigation by two APD detectives, two investigators with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and help from an FBI agent in Glenwood Springs, the case is progressing slowly.