COMMERCE CITY — As the Tri-County Health Department continues to increase COVID -19 restrictions for residents of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, where the direction is coming from to enforce those changes appears to be happening — in at least one county — behind closed doors, out of the reach of the general public.
Since early October, local elected officials from across Adams County have been meeting via zoom with each other for updates and conversation about the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. The meetings are organized and ran by members of the Board of Adams County Commissioners.
Although under Colorado’s open meetings laws, it’s not illegal for mayors from multiple communities to meet without notice or fewer than three members of a given city council and from multiple communities to meet without notice, one mayor is frustrated that these meetings continue, saying Adams County commissioners are acting outside what is allowed under the law, even if just in spirit.
Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman argues despite special exceptions under the law for county commissioners, in this case the Adams County commissioners are conducting public business and the meetings should be properly noticed and open to the public. So in response, Huseman is live streaming the meetings to his Facebook page.
“It’s unfortunate that you can have a meeting of that magnitude and discuss strategy and what you want to have happen and not have to properly notice it to the public,” Huseman said. “The commissioners get to appoint three people to the (nine-member) Tri County Health board, and they are defining in these meetings the direction they want those three members to make.”
Adams County Communications Director Christa Bruning said these meetings fall outside the requirements of open meetings.
“Adams County is committed to transparency and all meetings with decisions and votes on policy, regulations, and other decision making are posted and available to the public and members of the media,” Bruning told Complete Colorado by email, adding these meetings are “informational” and a chance to meet with Adams County’s municipal leaders to discuss COVID-19 regulations handed down by the Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
WHAT ARE THE SUNSHINE LAWS —
Colorado Revised Statute 24-6-401 defines a meeting as “Any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business in person, by telephone, electronically or by other means of communication.” For a local public body, such as county commissioners and city town councils and boards, meetings must be open to the public if there is a quorum or three or more members, whichever is fewer, at which public business is discussed or formal action may be taken.
In Adams County’s case, a public meeting would be defined as at least three commissioners are present discussing public business. Complete Colorado has confirmed that at least two of the meetings, at least three commissioners were present. At the Oct. 7 meeting, Complete Colorado confirmed Mary Hodge, Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco were in attendance with Hodge running the meeting. At the Oct. 15 meeting, Complete Colorado confirmed Henry, Hodge and Emma Pinter were in attendance, with Pinter running the meeting.
Under the law, public notice must be given in a “timely” manner “prior to all meetings where the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs or at which a majority or quorum is expected to be in attendance.” “Timely” is defined for a local public as “posting a notice in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting. Posted notices must include specific agendas if at all possible”
However, this is where state law grants special conditions for county commissioners. The law says commissioners “do not have to give 24-hour notice or personal notification if two or more meet to discuss “day-to-day oversight of property or supervision of employees.”
HUSEMAN’S RESPONSE —
In the case of the Tri-County meetings, Huseman believes the commissioners are meeting outside of the law.
Bruning disagreed, saying all “policy-making meetings are posted, and public hearings are streamed live and recorded for future viewing on the county’s YouTube channel.”
“These meetings do not craft policy and there are no votes taken to that end,” Bruning said. “These are simply designed to inform our cities on the latest data points used by these public health agencies and gather feedback from each city’s perspective. These meetings have been ongoing for quite a while and do not fall under the legal requirements for posting.”
Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he was apt to err on the side of Huseman.
“The only exception given to commissioners is with the notice,” Roberts said adding even that exception is only if the commissioners are meeting for oversight of property or an employee. “There is an argument that could be made here that they are meeting to discuss public business.”
Huseman said the fact these meetings are used to discuss strategy is all that he needs to believe they should be public meetings.
“County commissioners participated in defining what steps or things they wanted to take place in order to go from level three to level two and what they wanted their (Tri-County) health representatives to advocate for.”
Huseman believes so strongly that the meetings be made public that he has live streamed all three of the zoom meetings, and will continue to do so, to his official mayoral Facebook page in order to make them accessible to the public and keep a record of them.
“The public needs to know what we’re saying,” Huseman said. “I try very hard. We are going to be as transparent as we are as a city council. We’re discussing business. Everybody should have an opportunity to hear these meetings.”
Not everyone agrees. A visibly frustrated Commissioner Henry announced at the start of one meeting that it was being live streamed. However, no one has formally attempted to stop Huseman from the effort.
Henry did not return a request from Complete Colorado for comment.
Huseman said the concern over the rising cases of COVID-19 needs to get out to the general public and that opening the update meetings to the public seems to be the best way to do that.
“If you want people to take it more serious, let them see and hear the warnings being made by (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and Tri-County Health,” Huseman said. “Let them see it rather than being filtered through an elected official or a community relations department.”
This isn’t Huseman’s first disagreement over his desire to be transparent and open with his constituents. On Monday, the Commerce City Council voted 7-0 to censure Huseman over what they called unprofessional behavior.
The censure was not tied to the live streaming of the closed meeting, but concerned a series of events they said took place against city staff and a consultant at a recent work session. Members said it’s been an ongoing problem, saying Huseman’s behavior has disrupted council meetings for some time.
A censure has no penalty or real effect other than a public admonition of his behavior. Huseman told Complete Colorado he was disappointed in the council for not following its own protocol.
According to Huseman, council policy says conflicts will be resolved “quickly and not let them fester,” adding they should be solved with “direct interaction with each other and if necessary through the city manager and city attorney.”
“I am disappointed that the members of the city council made this motion and didn’t follow their own council policies by addressing this with me personally,” Huseman said. “I didn’t feel that was the proper approach to address this. There should have been direct interaction with each other and, if necessary, the city manager or city attorney. They wanted to make this a public spectacle the way they did.”