Freedom of the Press Trampled by Interior Sec. Jewell and Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper

Posted: Jan 28, 2014 12:01 AM

We aren't used to hearing about good work coming out of the Colorado State Legislature. But in 1972, one thing we did get right was the establishment of an open meeting law, which ensures all government decisions are made with transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, Governor John Hickenlooper has been unwilling to stand up for Coloradans – and specifically our local media – and their right to open meetings.

Governor Hickenlooper brought the "most transparent administration in history" to Colorado earlier this week, and not only were common-sense and the President's often repeated promise breached, but also the First Amendment of the Constitution and Colorado's quite specific "open meeting" law appear to have been violated.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel visited Northwest Colorado along with our Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper to discuss sage grouse conservation issues. The visit was broadly heralded and publicized and included an open discussion with local elected officials and interested members of the public at the American Legion hall in Craig.

Invitations to the meeting were sent out in advance by Gov. Hickenlooper's office. The Moffat County Commissioners posted the "public notice of the meeting" and invited the public as reported in the Grand Junction Sentinel.

The meeting itself was technically a public meeting of the Moffat County Commission, which beforehand posted a public notice of the meeting, casting it as an open-to-the-public workshop, Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid said.

"We wanted to cover our bases as we knew all three of us would be there," Kinkaid said.

So far so good. But, when Erin Fenner, a reporter for the Craig Daily Press, as well as Mike Fuller from KRAI, the radio station in Craig, showed up to attend, they were locked out of the meeting by Sec. Jewel's staff. This also from the GJ Sentinel report:

A reporter for radio station KRAI in Craig was barred from entering the meeting, as was one from the Craig Daily Press. The radio station on its website called the gathering "a secret meeting closed to the press. It's not clear what was discussed in that meeting." …The Craig Daily Press reporter repeatedly tried to enter the American Legion hall but was turned away, even after calling a Moffat County commissioner in the meeting and being told she could go inside.

A separate accounting of the Freedom of the Press and Open Meetings fiasco by Rob Douglas in the Steamboat Pilot quotes Fenner. Douglas is also a contributing editor for A Line of Sight.

According to the Craig Daily Press, government reporter Erin Fenner "said she was 'under the impression' the meeting was open to the public and was therefore open to the press. A man present whom Fenner believed to be representing Secretary Jewell told Fenner the meeting was closed by a request from Jewell."

Hickenlooper's office feigns innocence in the matter even though the entire episode was carefully coordinated by the Governor's office and Jewell. Douglas writes:

In an initial email responding to questions from the Craig Daily Press about why Fenner had been barred from the meeting, Eric Brown, Hickenlooper's director of communications, stated that Jewell asked that the meeting be closed to the press to "help foster an open and frank discussion."

The editor of the Craig Daily Press isn't buying that. According to yet another account of the bizarre event by Valerie Richardson in the Colorado Observer:

Noelle Leavitt Riley, managing editor of the Craig Daily Press, said Jewell's desire for an "open and frank conversation" shouldn't have overridden the right of the press to attend the meeting.

"I responded back to the Department of Interior, 'Look, I appreciate your response, but if American public officials are allowed to close meetings because they want to have frank discussions, then what does that say about our democracy?'" said Riley.

"The sage-grouse issue is huge. We were excited she was coming," said Riley. "Her visit was marred by her not putting any forethought into the repercussions of her closing a public meeting to the press. And she put county officials in a bad position."

It's an unfortunate outcome of an event that should have been a positive moment for Northwest Colorado. As Richardson explains, Colorado's Sunshine Law doesn't apply to a federal official or even the governor, but they sure put the Moffat County Commissioners between a rock and a hard place:

Because Jewell is a federal official, Zansberg (legal counsel for the Colorado Press Association) said she didn't break Colorado's Open Meetings Law, which requires meetings to be made public when three or more local officials from the same board or commission are present.

"The Secretary of Interior didn't violate our open-meetings laws because she is not subject to them," said Zansberg. "Nor is our governor."

But she did place the Moffat County Commissioners in an awkward position. In attendance were all three commissioners, who had announced earlier that the press would be welcome at the gathering.

"Moffat County gave appropriate notice that it was scheduled and open to the public," said aJan. 23 editorial in the Grand Junction Sentinel. "Jewell has no authority to overrule them and declare a meeting closed that legally must be open."

Here's the real rub. Jewell isn't from Colorado, so it is possible she and her staff were not aware. But the Governor knows better -- or at least he should. However, here's his defense as reported by Douglas:

On Thursday, responding to follow-up questions from the Craig Daily Press, Brown [Eric Brown, Hickenlooper's Communications Director] wrote, "The governor went into the meeting with every expectation that it was open to reporters. He didn't know your reporter was asked to leave until I told him the day after."

That explanation seems implausible. When a Cabinet official travels for public appearances, their aides meticulously choreograph every minute and every detail of any visit, specifically including who will be in attendance and whether press is included or excluded. That "advance work" is finalized and shared with local officials, in this case the Governor.

If the Governor was personally unaware that Jewell intended to open the meeting to the public but deny access by the press, it is likely because he either wasn't paying attention, or somebody isn't telling the truth.

According to all the reports, only 40-50 people attended the meeting. Denying access to anyone, particularly reporters had to create a bit of a scene. Indeed, at one point one of the Commissioners personally intervened on behalf of Erin Fenner of the Craig Daily Press and was rebuffed. Again, from Valerie Richardson's account:

Moffat County Commissioners did try to include Fenner at the meeting—one of them walked her back after she had been rebuffed, only to have her blocked again. Even so, it appears the commission may have violated the state's Open Meetings Law, in practice if not in spirit.

That all of this commotion happened with the Governor remaining completely unaware is hard to imagine. That he and his office had no idea in advance that the press was to be excluded from the meeting is absurd. That neither he nor his staff took action to correct the situation is inexcusable.

The folks in Moffat Country already have reason to be less than happy with the Governor. Last year he signed legislation that will drive up energy costs in rural Colorado counties as well as a series of extremely restrictive anti-gun regulations. Moffat County is also home to an operating coal mine and a huge coal-fired power plant, currently under attack by the Obama Administration's proposed restrictive carbon emission regulations designed to bankrupt the industry. "It's devastating to our economy if these EPA regulations go through. We're a small community," according to Chuck Grobe, a Moffat County Commissioner. "We lose the power plant and coal mines, we're really dead in the water."

The brief stopover by Hickenlooper and Jewell should have been a fence-mending opportunity and a chance to tamp down growing concern that the Obama Administration might impose land use regulations on the ranchers and vast acreages in Northwest Colorado under the guise of protecting habitat for the Sage Grouse.

But, the clumsiness of Jewell and the acquiescence of Hickenlooper picked at an already open wound and turned opportunity into disaster, with Moffat County left to pick up the pieces.