Reporter Heath Urie has faced plenty of obstacles while covering Jefferson County for the Columbine Courier newspaper, and he's convinced that many of them were placed before him improperly. "When it comes to open-records laws and open-meetings laws, they are clueless," he says, "and it's frustrating as hell."
Rather than simply grousing about the situation, however, Urie, in concert with Landmark Community Newspapers of Colorado, the Courier's owner, is trying to improve it. On July 23, the parties filed a complaint in Jefferson County District Court against Jeffco's Board of Commissioners — Republicans Jim Congrove and Kevin McCasky, and Democrat Kathy Hartman — over a July 5 meeting that Urie and company believe was staged in violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Law.
Urie has been down this road before. As a student for the University of Northern Colorado, he worked for the Mirror, UNC's student newspaper, and in 2003, the publication ran several articles accusing the school's Student Representative Council of violating the state's open-meetings law. After the SRC tried to cut the Mirror's budget the following year in what then-editor Urie saw as a retaliatory move, he joined two fellow student staffers in suing the council and its president in Weld County District Court over the meetings issue — an action at the heart of a previous column ("Press On," May 20, 2004). The suit was settled in October 2004, and one of its key provisions prevented the SRC from making future funding decisions about the paper.
After graduation, Urie joined the Courier team, and his two years on the Jeffco beat further strengthened his view that the press needs to speak out when faced with institutional stonewalling. He says he's observed numerous examples of secretive behavior on the part of Jefferson County officials, including their propensity for going into executive session without legitimate justification. On one occasion, he remembers being given the boot because the commissioners were supposedly seeking legal advice, only to subsequently overhear them talking about how best to handle persistent critic Mike Zinna during public-comment segments. (One person suggested letting Zinna have his say only after the room had been cleared.) On another, Jeffco officials refused to provide documents about commissioners' work schedules, ostensibly because doing so might help terrorists pinpoint their locations — a laughable assertion rendered even sillier by the fact that Jeffco gave the same material to the Courier two years earlier.
Courier editor Doug Bell calls the terrorism rationale "so beyond the pale that I hesitate to even repeat it" — but he takes pleasure in recapping ensuing developments. "As a result of being turned down, Heath then asked to see their vehicle records, and it came out that the commissioners weren't keeping those records, in violation of their own policy," he says. "If they had just provided us with the other information right off the bat, none of that would have happened."
As for the most recent incident and the court filing it prompted, Jeffco spokeswoman Kathryn Heider offers a no-comment on behalf of the county and the commissioners. Still, Urie says she's part of the story. On July 5, he asked Heider if the commissioners had anything scheduled — a question prompted by his surprise that their agenda for the day was blank. In response, he says, she told him the commissioners wouldn't be on site at the county's administration and courts building. Shortly thereafter, Urie headed to the courthouse to pick up documents related to another assignment, and when he passed the room where the commissioners regularly hold public meetings, he saw all three of them, plus Heider, county administrator Jim Moore and several other officials, addressing an audience of approximately seventy employees. Urie slipped inside and caught the last five to ten minutes of the presentation, and what he heard convinced him that this wasn't the sort of emergency get-together allowed under open-meetings law. "The commissioners were taking questions and answers about the county budget," he notes. "I immediately knew that they were meeting for something of public value they hadn't told the public about."
Afterward, Urie, whose account of the episode was published in the July 10 Courier, confronted several of the meeting's stars, and he didn't parse words. "I was mad," he concedes. "I cornered Commissioner Hartman and Kathryn Heider and got in their face. I said, 'Can someone explain to me why this meeting is happening when I called two hours ago and was told there was no meeting?'" As he recalls it, Heider claimed the assembly was meant merely to provide information to employees, and while the commissioners had been invited to stop by, they weren't "intended" to be formal participants. That argument left Urie unconvinced. "They were detailing exactly what cuts they were going to make to the county budget and how it was going to affect employees — but that affects the public, too. I asked them, 'How is the public supposed to know what you guys are doing if the public and the press are not invited to at least have the opportunity to attend?'"
In Urie's view, Hartman, in particular, listened to the points he made. "She called me on my cell phone three or four hours after I made my big stink," he reveals, "and she explained, much to my delight, that she'd gone to her office and read a copy of the Colorado Open Meetings Law. What a simple thing to do. And she said, 'You're right. I'm wrong. It should have been posted,'" — although she suspected the failure to do so was more of an oversight than a conscious attempt at secrecy. He eventually received a similar acknowledgement from Congrove, who had left the meeting before Urie had a chance to interview him. Congrove also felt a simple mistake may have been the culprit, but Urie says the commissioner concluded, "'It should have been posted. We screwed up.'"
In contrast, McCasky, who spoke with Urie at meeting's end, firmly believed the commissioners had done nothing wrong. "He took the attitude that we had no business covering a meeting talking about the budget with county employees," Urie reports. "He said he'd seen Supreme Court decisions that gave him the right to meet with any of the commissioners at any time without public notice as long as they weren't making a decision or they didn't have the potential to make a decision," much in the same way they could consult over the phone or via e-mail. To Urie, this philosophy "raised a lot of red flags. If that's what he's telling us, how many conversations are going on in the building that are leading to decisions or influencing decisions that we don't know about?"
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McCasky's intractability convinced Urie that legal action was necessary, and after pressing his case with editor Bell and publisher Theresa Willmann, they decided he was right — an endorsement Urie feels is worthy of praise. The cost of going to court may be considerable, but despite the tough times the newspaper business in general is facing, Bell feels it would have been riskier to do nothing. "Perhaps Jefferson County wasn't taking us seriously enough," he says. "We're a small group of weeklies, and I think we were backed into a corner. I was concerned about the expense, but the bottom line is, we're here to make sure the public is informed, and that wasn't happening because of the way they conducted business."
The complaint, to which Jefferson County must respond within twenty days from July 23, was assembled by Chris Beall, the same lawyer who represented Urie and his fellow students in the UNC matter. Aside from requesting "reasonable attorney's fees," it asks that the court require "the posting of full and timely public notices prior to any meeting at which two or more members of the Board of County Commissioners is anticipated to be in attendance or is in fact in attendance and where the discussion will concern public business."
"We're not seeking to profit. We're suing for taxpayers and our readers," Urie emphasizes. "The goal is to have a judge explain to them what they have to do to have proper public involvement in the governmental process so that if they do something wrong, we can go back to the judge and say, 'They did it again.'"
Under those circumstances, Urie would undoubtedly repeat his actions as well.