The Jeffco commissioners may have once again run afoul of the Colorado Open Meetings Law by using e-mail to discuss a common statement regarding the board’s controversial effort to seek authority to regulate bicyclists on county roads.
The apparent violation comes less than two years after the Courier successfully sued the Board of Commissioners over a violation of the law in July 2007. In a settlement of that lawsuit, the commissioners acknowledged they violated the Open Meetings Law and agreed to follow all of the law’s provisions in the future.
But on July 17, Commissioners Kevin McCasky and Kathy Hartman exchanged a series of e-mails to discuss a “common response” to inquiries about the county’s plan to seek legislative authority to regulate the use of bicycles on county roads.
"Is what the county commissioners did … a violation of Colorado open meetings laws? Most certainly," said Chris Beall, an attorney representing the Columbine Courier, Canyon Courier and High Timber Times.
"There isn't any question that we have two commissioners discussing a matter of pending public business amongst themselves by e-mail," Beall said. "… When commissioners exchange e-mail to discuss public business without providing notice or contemporaneous access, (it’s) against the law."
County officials said they did nothing wrong.
"I unequivocally disagree with this assessment," McCasky said July 24. "(Beall) doesn't have all the facts, and, as such, I think it's improper for him to issue this type of opinion when he doesn't know all the facts."
Beyond the e-mails themselves, which the Courier obtained through an open records request, McCasky couldn't say what other information existed on whether the e-mails constituted an illegal meeting.
"No laws were violated," McCasky said. "A decision was made over the course of three public meetings, and therefore there's no issue here."
Hartman declined to comment on whether the e-mails constituted an illegal meeting, and County Attorney Ellen Wakeman was on vacation and couldn't be reached. Deputy County Attorney Joanne Kortendick said no laws were broken.
"These e-mails were not conducting public business," Kortendick said July 24. "They were following up on already-published-noticed public meetings, and just responding to formulate a statement based on discussions and actions that had already been taken by the board."
The e-mail exchange by the two commissioners came to the Courier’s attention via Hartman’s constituent newsletter, in which she wrote: “E-mails from my fellow commissioners trying to agree on common language for a statement also flew back and forth.”
Hartman’s newsletter noted that she had received numerous e-mails from angry bicyclists in the wake of published reports that the commission would seek the same authority currently possessed by municipalities to regulate bicycling on roads.
The final statement agreed to by the two commissioners in the apparently illegal e-mail exchange said the county “is not proposing to close any roads to bicyclists.” There has been no indication, however, that the commissioners are no longer pursing the authority to do so for safety reasons at some point in the future.