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State high court limits open meetings requirement.

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    News Media Update         COLORADO         Freedom of Information    

State high court limits open meetings requirement.

  • The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the state Open Meetings Law only applies when a meeting is part of the policy-making process.

April 26, 2004 — The Colorado Open Meetings Law does not apply to all gatherings of public bodies in which matters of public importance are discussed, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday. The law only applies when the meeting is part of the policy-making process.

The case arose from the operation of a gold mine from 1989 to 1996 by Battle Mountain Resources, Inc. In 1999, the Colorado Department of Public Health discovered that the mine had seeped waste into the Rito Seco stream. The company was ordered to cease efforts to reclaim the mine, and agreed to construct a water treatment facility.

Later that year, the company invited the board of commissioners of Costilla County, several other county officials, selected private citizens and the National Resource Conservation Service to a meeting at the Hideaway restaurant in Alamosa. There, Battle Mountain explained its plans to correct the stream pollution. Two of the three commissioners attended — enough to constitute a quorum — but did not actively participate.

The commissioners did not provide public notice of the meeting, but the board did hold regularly-scheduled open meetings before and after the Hideaway restaurant presentation. Battle Mountain attended both of those gatherings and spoke about its clean-up plans.

The Costilla County Conservancy District filed suit, claiming that the Hideaway restaurant meeting violated the Open Meetings Law because it was not open to the public and was held without notice.

The trial court dismissed the suit, holding that the act only applies to meetings a public body calls and arranges and in which its members participate. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision in September 2002, holding that the act applies whenever a quorum of a public body is present or expects to be present.

A friend-of-the-court brief was filed by the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Freedom of Information Council.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and on April 19 reversed the decision of the appeals court.

“The OML applies to meetings that are convened for the purpose of policy-making” and not, as the district argued, merely for “discussing matters of public importance,” wrote Justice Michael Bender for the unanimous court.

“[A]t the time the meeting was held, the board was not considering any policy-making decisions or actions regarding the mine,” the court held. “Further, nothing in the record indicates that the meeting led to any rule, resolution or formal action by the board, or that the board subsequently ‘rubber stamped’ any policy suggested or discussed at the Hideaway meeting.”

Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, told The Associated Press, “In so many of these situations, public business is discussed and it often leads to decision-making.

“If the press and public are not there, who knows what was discussed and what decisions were made?”

(Board of County Commissioners v. Costilla County Conservancy District; Amicus Media Counsel: Thomas B. Kelley, Faegre & Benson, Denver) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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