Two of Jeffco’s county commissioners violated the state’s Open Meetings Law last week when they discussed public business at a gathering that had not been posted in advance as a meeting of the commission.
The violation is the latest in a longstanding legacy in Jeffco government. In settling a lawsuit filed by the Courier in 2007, the county acknowledged open-meetings abuses and pledged not to break the law again. Two years later, two commissioners did just that by discussing public business via e-mail.
In the latest violation, Commissioners Casey Tighe and Don Rosier discussed a proposal by the town of Bow Mar to annex Southwest Plaza mall in a town hall June 10 at the Columbine Library.
If two or more members of a three-person local board are together and discussing policy, adequate notice of the meeting must be given, said First Amendment lawyer Steve Zansberg.
Assistant County Attorney Writer Mott acknowledged that a violation of the law likely took place.
“I think we should have (announced the meeting). I think we made a mistake, and we won’t make that mistake again,” Mott said. “We strive to comply, and we’ll make sure if two commissioners show up at a meeting, we’ll announce it.”
The gathering had been initiated by Tighe to discuss the possible annexation of Southwest Plaza by Bow Mar. While the meeting had been publicly announced, it didn’t appear on the board’s weekly meeting schedule.
Tighe and Rosier both spoke at length, with Rosier standing to answer questions and address what he saw as inaccuracies in several citizen comments. Tighe also turned over the floor to Rosier to make final comments before the meeting ended.
“It’s unquestionably a violation of the Open Meetings Law,” Zansberg said. “Two commissioners were together in the same room at the same time discussing possible action. That’s a meeting.”
Tighe said he originally proposed a town hall with all three commissioners but that idea had been rejected by Rosier. When Rosier said he wanted to attend after the gathering was arranged, Tighe said he didn’t want to discourage his fellow commissioner from having the opportunity to be there.
“(Violating the law), that’s something we don’t want to happen, and we’re disappointed that it happened,” said Tighe, a Democrat who was elected in 2012. “You’ll have to talk to (Rosier) about that thought process.”
Rosier, a Republican who is up for re-election this year, said he attended the gathering based on advice from County Attorney Ellen Wakeman that it would not violate the law.
“The Jefferson County attorney indicated to me that this meeting did not fall within the Open Meetings Law based on it was a town hall meeting and no policy decisions were being discussed,” Rosier said. “It was, however, advertised in the paper as a community meeting and, as a resident of District 3, I attended the meeting. I only responded to comments when they were directed to me.”
Wakeman said the meeting should have been posted since two commissioners were there, but it wasn’t posted due to a miscommunication among county staff. The meeting had been advertised, but when Rosier decided the day before to attend, a notification of two commissioners wasn’t sent out.
“It should have been posted because there were two commissioners there,” Wakeman said. “It was an error that kept it from getting on the agenda. Our policy is to always post notification of meetings with two or more commissioners attending.”
The Courier’s 2007 lawsuit was triggered when all three commissioners met with county employees without giving notice of the gathering. The settlement required the board to acknowledge the violation and adhere to the law in the future.
Two years later, after then-commissioners Kathy Hartman and Kevin McCasky discussed public business in e-mails, the county agreed to host a presentation by Zansberg on the Open Meetings Law for all county officials and members of Jeffco commissions.