Closed-door meeting raises transparency questions

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

Alhough no open meetings laws technically were violated, a closed-door meeting between District Attorney Will Furse and the three Montezuma County commissioners on Monday remains shrouded in mystery.

In most cases, when a quorum of public officials meets to discuss business, that meeting must be open to the public. There are certain exceptions - security or personnel matters, for example - where the officials can meet privately under an executive session. Those executive sessions, according to Colorado law, must be announced in advance and the topic of discussion described as specifically as possible without compromising sensitive information.

On Monday afternoon, the county commission finished all business items listed on its agenda, and the commissioners declared the meeting adjourned. Meanwhile, Furse entered the room, wanting to speak with the commissioners alone. County Clerk and Recorder Carol Tullis, and two private citizens, were asked to leave. David Grant Long, one of the citizens and a reporter with the Four Corners Free Press, asked if an executive session was being called. No, Furse answered. It was merely an informal, non-business related discussion, he said. Finding themselves suddenly unwelcome, the trio complied and filed out, and the private meeting commenced.

When reached for comment Tuesday, Furse would not say what the discussion was about or why it was necessary to clear the room.

"It was just four guys talking," he said, suggesting the chat could have been about basketball or some other innocuous topic.

Asked why non-business matters would be discussed behind closed doors, in the commissioner's room, Furse said it was simply an opportune time to get all three commissioners together at once.

Furse underscored, twice, that the private meeting was unrelated to County Administrator Ashton Harrison's resignation, and called the timing coincidental. Harrison stepped down on Tuesday morning, effective immediately.

The commissioners, likewise, were mum about the details. Keenan Ertel called the conversation in question a "private thing."

"There were no actions taken. No county business," he said.

Commissioners Steve Chappell and Larry Don Suckla did not return phone calls requesting comment.

The Cortez Journal contacted Tullis on Tuesday to request an audio recording of the commissioner meeting. She said this wasn't possible because only public hearings - where citizens are invited to weigh in on a particular topic - are recorded. Other commission happenings are notated by Tullis in a typed summary, or "minutes," published afterward. Tullis could not speak to the content of the private discussion between Furse and the commissioners, as she also was asked to leave.

"Your guess is as good as mine," she said. "I have no idea. It took us all by surprise."

Along with Tullis and Long, the third person booted from the room was Bud Garner, an erstwhile commissioner candidate who resolutely attends nearly all weekly meetings. He, too, was in the dark.

"No clue," he said. "It struck me as a little odd."

Steve Zansberg, attorney for the Cortez Journal and the Colorado Press Association, said open meetings laws were not violated as long as the conversation dealt with non-business topics. He gave a few hypothetical examples, like planning a surprise birthday party or talking about a death in someone's family. Under a 2004 Colorado Supreme Court ruling, they could even have discussed business matters connected to the District Attorney's office that the commissioners have no jurisdiction over, and still be within the bounds of the law, though this is a grayer area.

Even so, Zansberg said it was unusual for Furse or the commissioners not to summarize the meeting's purpose, even in vague terms, to dispel suspicion.

"To just hear 'take our word for it' is a little disconcerting," he said.

Michael Goldman, one of two Durango attorneys the county is retaining in lieu of a permanent county attorney, had already left before the private meeting started, and could not speak to the substance of the conversation. He did, however, offer to take measures to clarify the situation and avoid any perception of undue secrecy.

"We'll do what we can to make sure even the appearance of doing business behind closed doors is avoided. I think everyone wants that. Nobody wants to give the wrong impression," he said.

Goldman is a founding member of the Durango firm Goldman, Robbins and Nicholson. He and Jeff Robbins are splitting the task of providing legal counsel to the county until a permanent replacement is found for Bob Slough. In January the commission voted 2-1, with Suckla dissenting, not to renew Slough's contract. He had represented Montezuma County for 25 years.

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