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Commissioners again run afoul of Open Meetings Law

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By Gabrielle Porter

A meeting among two Clear Creek county commissioners and a local business owner has once again raised questions about the board’s failure to follow the Colorado Open Meetings Law.

County Commissioners Tom Hayden and Phil Buckland met Dec. 9 with TallGrass Spa owner Gail Ridings to discuss her concerns about broadband access in her neighborhood.

At a public meeting a day earlier, Buckland raised concerns about whether advance notice of the meeting should be posted under the Colorado Open Meetings Law, since two of three commissioners — a quorum — would be in attendance.

The Open Meetings Law states that when a quorum of a public body discusses public business, that discussion must be open to the public and the press, with a few exceptions.

County Attorney Bob Loeffler told commissioners during the session that they should post the meeting. The commissioners then announced that only Hayden would attend.

“It’s a private meeting,” Hayden said.

According to Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, courts have held that meetings involving a quorum of a public body should be open when public-policy implications are being discussed. The commission has discussed broadband accessibility extensively in recent years, and the county is currently working on hiring a contractor to survey areas with the greatest needs.

After the Clear Creek Courant learned that Hayden and Buckland had both attended the meeting after all, Loeffler said in an interview he was not aware that two commissioners had attended, but that he didn’t believe the meeting should have been classified as public after all, because it didn’t involve policy-making.

Ridings employs about 70 people at her luxury spa, making the business one of the county’s top employers. Loeffler said he would not further analyze the situation to explain how a broadband discussion wasn’t related to policy-making. He said the Courant should “read the law.”

“Who cares?” he said. “There’s no reason to care. You wouldn’t have been allowed in.”

Buckland — who raised the initial concern over whether the Open Meetings Law was being followed — said after the meeting that he hadn’t planned on attending.

“I had the same question you had …,” Buckland said when asked why he believed the meeting should have been private. “What I understood was, no, it’s just a private meeting. (I decided initially), ‘Well, then, I don’t need to be there.’ ”

Buckland said that on the day of the meeting, Hayden asked him to attend to answer some technical questions for Ridings and her staff.

Buckland didn’t say whether he thought the meeting should have been posted and held in public, but said he has concerns over the public’s trust.

“Perception has something to do with this, too,” Buckland said. “That’s important also — that people trust you.”

Hayden didn’t return calls for comment.

Several county staff members also reportedly attended the meeting.

The commissioners appeared to run afoul of the Open Meetings Law in July when they held an unscheduled closed-door meeting with county Sheriff Rick Albers without voting to convene an executive session or giving a reason for going behind closed doors, which the law requires.

The Open Meetings Law allows government bodies to hold secret sessions only to discuss a limited number of topics, and only if a public vote is first taken to convene an executive session. It also specifies that the topic must be announced to the public “with as much specificity as can be provided without compromising the reason for the executive session,” state law reads.

TallGrass asks county to address Internet access

Ridings said Internet speeds are very slow along Upper Bear Creek Road where her business is located, and that not enough broadband access exists for all of her customers.

“The cool latest things that have come out to help my business perform better, I’m unable to utilize, because my Internet speed’s not fast enough,” Ridings said. “It’s a big problem for me and my business, and it’s a problem for all the residents here that can’t get Internet access.”

Ridings said the software she uses for bookings is several years old and the Internet is too slow for her to install updates. She said she met with county commissioners and staffers to talk about the issue and how it can be addressed with local Internet provider CenturyLink.

“The commissioners were very concerned and expressed that they want to help me however they can,” she said, adding that the meeting had a little more technical language than she could understand.

CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen wrote in an e-mail that the company is trying to “assess the feasibility of expanding or enhancing our broadband capabilities.”

“However, expanding or enhancing service in the Witter Gulch area is not economically feasible right now without alternative methods such as public-private partnerships,” he said.

Hayden told his fellow commissioners at the Dec. 8 meeting that TallGrass might consider leaving Clear Creek County if the Internet issue could not be resolved.

Ridings said in an interview, however, that she doesn’t plan to leave.

“Our location is part of our draw; we’re in a gorgeous location,” Ridings said. “I love Clear Creek.”

High-speed Internet access for remote areas has been on the county’s agenda for some time. Voters in November passed a measure to approve a plan for the county to get into the high-speed Internet business, probably in partnership with a private carrier. The county is currently preparing to kick off the process by partnering with Gilpin County to finance a study of both counties’ broadband needs and priorities.

Contact Gabrielle Porter Gabrielle@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1042. Check www.ClearCreekCourant.com for updates.