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Playing loose with the sunshine laws

Members of the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners flew under the public radar again, gathering in an essentially unnoticed — and thereby essentially illegal — meeting Monday with members of the Archuleta Economic Development Association (AEDA) board.

Although the commissioners’ attendance at the AEDA board meeting did not totally violate Colorado open meetings laws, the incident is problematic in that it marks another event in a series of similar events over the last year that demonstrate the commissioners’ willingness to stretch the spirit of the state’s sunshine laws.

For example, on June 3, 2009, Archuleta County Commissioners Clifford Lucero, Bob Moomaw and John Ranson held an executive session with County Attorney Todd Starr while carpooling to Aspen Springs to discuss enforcement of the county’s recently-adopted nuisance ordinance. Although holding a closed session in a car is not necessary illegal, the commissioners should have posted the executive session per Colorado law, voted to convene the executive session in a public meeting, held the session, then reconvened in a public session to answer questions or provide comments. It remains unclear if all those steps took place.

Soon after Lucero and Ranson took office, the commissioners began postings for lunches at Pagosa Springs area restaurants where a commissioner quorum may have been present. SUN staff argued that commissioner quorums at area restaurants were problematic for a variety of reasons. The postings soon disappeared from the BoCC rolling calendar.

Specifically, Colorado’s open meetings law requires full and timely posting in a formally-designated public place at least 24 hours before the meeting. In addition, posted notices must include a specific agenda, when possible. Executive sessions require additional notification and explanatory requirements.

With regard to the AEDA board meeting, notification arrived in SUN offices via e-mail at 11:30 a.m. Monday. The AEDA board meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. the same day. In addition, the commissioners’ intent to attend was not detailed in the typical fashion — via formal, stand-alone notification stating the meeting’s time, date and location and items up for discussion. Instead, the commissioners’ attendance was noticed as an e-mail attachment and as a line item on their rolling calendar. The notification read: “10/26/09 AEDA Meeting 3 p.m.”

SUN editorial staff, the commissioners, county legal counsel and county management have battled over whether using the commissioners’ rolling calendar meets the letter and spirit of Colorado’s Sunshine Laws.

According to county staff, the rolling calendar — despite omissions of place and a statement of topics for discussion — adheres to the open meetings laws because it appears in a consistent and formally-designated posting place. Furthermore, it provides adequate information regarding commissioner meetings.

SUN editorial staff have argued that the commissioners should notice and meet with as much specificity and transparency as possible.

The SUN and the county have agreed to disagree.

When asked about the commissioners’ attendance at the Monday AEDA meeting, Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte said county staff could have done a better job providing notification of the commissioners’ intent to attend.

Moomaw said the board attended to serve as active listeners, but was not in charge of the AEDA agenda.

“We were not in control of that meeting. We were there to enter into discussions with them based on their agenda,” Moomaw said.

According to those in attendance, the meeting entailed discussion of an economic summit scheduled for Nov. 3 where the town, county, AEDA and Region 9 would explore the agencies’ top five economic development priorities.

In addition, discussions explored the county’s offer to handle various clerical tasks while the AEDA board searches for a new director, following former director Bart Mitchell’s resignation earlier in the month.

Since 2005, the year Mitchell arrived at the AEDA, taxpayers have subsidized the organization through $48,850 in contributions from the town and $45,000 in contributions from the county between 2005 and 2007. The county also paid $5,500 in dues to the organization for 2008 and 2009, while the town paid $7,200 in AEDA dues for the same time period.

Spread out over five years, those dollars may sound inconsequential relative to town and county budgets. However, Mitchell’s departure has triggered a bout of interagency soul searching, as the AEDA board and partner agencies within the community are struggling to redefine the AEDA’s mission while seeking new revenue streams.

In those conversations are discussions of additional public dollars going into the organization, with Pagosa Springs Town Councilman Mark Weiler suggesting during a meeting last week that the town inject $100,000 into the organization.

Although some may have missed an opportunity to hear the commissioners’ comments to the AEDA board Monday, there are ways to stay informed.

The designated posting place for commissioner meeting agendas is inside the courthouse, on a bulletin board in the hallway, adjacent to the commissioners’ offices, and on a bulletin board outside the clerk’s office site.

There, citizens will find the rolling calendar, which serves as a secondary notification of commissioner events, in addition to planning commission agendas, other commissioner meeting schedules and event postings.

The commissioners hold regular meetings on the first and third Tuesday of each month, with public forums on months with five Tuesdays.

In addition, the commissioners meet every Tuesday at 8 a.m. with Schulte in an open, public meeting, and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. in a work session format. Both meetings are posted on the rolling calendar without a location given. Typically, the meetings occur in the courthouse, however, the location can be subject to change.

Your elected officials

Archuleta County commissioners can be reached at: 264-8300 or dial direct to Lucero at 264-8303, Moomaw at 264-8305 or Ranson at 264-8304.

james@pagosasun.com