DENVER The Colorado Supreme Court issued a key ruling on open government yesterday, saying public boards are not required to notify the public in advance about certain meetings.
The state's highest court said the Costilla County Board of Commissioners did not have to give public notice of a 1999 meeting about a southern Colorado gold mine. Two county commissioners attended the meeting at a restaurant, joined by state and company officials.
Under Colorado law, a public body is required to give notice of a meeting when it is part of the policy-making process. In its decision, the court said public notification is required only when there is "a meaningful connection" between the meeting and policy-making.
Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, said the ruling set a bad precedent.
"In so many of these situations, public business is discussed and it often leads to decision-making," he said. "If the public and the press are not there, who knows what was discussed and what decisions were made?"
Otte said he would meet with the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc. to make it clear meetings should be open.
The case involves Battle Mountain Resources, which operated the mine near San Luis from 1989 to 1996. The company was ordered to halt reclamation operations in 1999 after state health officials discovered waste had seeped into nearby water supplies.
A few months later, the health department, the Department of Natural Resources and Battle Mountain held a meeting at a restaurant in Alamosa to discuss the company's plans.
Costilla County commissioner Charles Atencio said the board did not provide notice because the meeting was not a county meeting and because the board did not have any pending business related to the mine.
The county later held public meetings on the problem, but a water-conservancy district sued about the restaurant meeting and was later joined by the press association.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling there was no evidence that business was discussed. The state Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, saying the law clearly requires public notice where a quorum of public officials is present.
The high court overturned that decision. The case is Board of County Commissions, Costilla County v. Costilla County Conservancy District & Michael McGowe.
Battle Mountain later agreed to build a water-treatment facility, pay $86,700 in civil penalties and pay $30,000 to the Costilla County Water and Sanitation Department in lieu of a fine.