Is it time for commissioners to revamp their interpretation of Colorado’s open meetings law? | MyWindsorNow.com

Is it time for commissioners to revamp their interpretation of Colorado’s open meetings law?

Sharon Dunn
sdunn@greeleytribune.com

A longstanding practice of how the Weld County commissioners conduct meetings may be violating the spirit of the Colorado Open Meetings law.

And some commissioners say they are willing to look at changing such practices if they continue to elicit allegations of being improper.

"I'm always open to being better and finding ways that more people know what we're doing on work sessions or meetings at conferences," said Commission Chairwoman Julie Cozad on Wednesday. "Transparency is the most important thing for me and the public. I have no problem with looking at that. But the way we're doing things is the way it's been done for a long time, 20 to 30 years, because I worked here in the '90s. It hasn't changed."

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway has accused his fellow commissioners of violating the spirit of the Colorado Open Meetings law by talking about county business at lunch or in parking lots without proper notice to the public.

One specific meeting that all five commissioners held on Nov. 30 was at a Colorado Counties Inc. conference in Colorado Springs. Such conferences are held for commissioners throughout the state to study issues important to counties and discuss pending legislation or even take leadership courses.

At that conference, the commissioners sat down to discuss their roles for 2017 — who would be elected chair and which commissioners would be appointed to oversee which county departments.

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Such a meeting is a tradition among the commissioners, said outgoing chairman Mike Freeman. In 2012, he said, Conway was the chairman, and he called the same meeting.

"Sean was chair, he told me on a Tuesday, we're meeting this afternoon to talk about all of our roles next year, and he told me what I was going to do," Freeman said. "So, that's just the way it's always been. I don't know how else we do that. Maybe the answer is that we schedule it as a work session and do it here, or do it in public. I don't think that would have been something that would have been very cool in public."

At that meeting on Nov. 30, four commissioners told Conway they no longer had trust in him after his public complaints of wrongdoing and an employee alleged an harassment complaint against him. They said they wouldn't put him in any leadership position for 2017.

Conway has since complained about the meeting taking place without proper notice to the public.

As the commissioners see it, the notice they were attending the conference was the proper notice.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Freedom of Information Coalition in Denver, agrees such a meeting likely violated the spirit of the open meetings law.

"To me, that's not the spirit of the law is intending," Roberts said. "I think there needs to be more specificity in how they notice that. If they're going to have a meeting amongst themselves, a quorum of the county commission, the public needs to be notified about that any time public business is going to be discussed. They should take every measure they can to involve the public."

The Colorado Open Meetings law, however, does grant county commissioners a little lenience, since working together, and talking together, is their full-time job.

The Colorado Open Meetings law does not require county commissioners to notice the public, "if two or more meet to discuss day-to-day oversight of property or supervision of employees."

The commissioners also often meet frequently for lunch, a practice Conway said he stopped attending a while back because the commissioners' discussions ventured into county business. The law states: "Social gatherings and chance meetings are exempt from open meetings regulations if discussion of public business is not the central purpose."

The law states that when two or more members meet, "at which public business is to be discussed or at which formal action may be taken," they must open to the public.

These days, he said, there are tools to help that public transparency, Roberts said. Twitter and Facebook live both would be options for the county commissioners to be as transparent as possible.

Cozad said she believes the allegations of improper meetings have a specific intent — not the least of which is concern for the public. She believes commissioners have done nothing improper.

"We can always look at doing things different and better," she said.

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Weld County commissioners keep Sean Conway from leadership role: Click here.

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