Tentative Settlement Reached In Open Meetings Lawsuit | Ouray BOCC Keeps P&Z Appointments
by Christopher Pike
May 25, 2006 | 245 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A tentative legal settlement was reached on Tuesday between the Ouray Plaindealer Newspapers and the Ouray County Board of Commissioners over alleged abuse of executive session privileges as proscribed by the Colorado Open Meetings Law. While the legal language is still "in the process," the two parties were in agreement at press time that the county had met the law's requirements after conducting a two-hour public feedback session on May 22. Following that session, Ted Collins, Carl Cockle and Bob Luttrell were re-appointed, this time in open session, to the County Planning Commission, replacing Carey Skoumal, Alan Staehle and Howard Greene, exactly as before.

Commissioner Don Batchelder voted against the appointments as a block, maintaining that Skoumal should be retained due to his lengthy residency on Log Hill and "historical perspective."

The litigation stemmed from an April 3 meeting during which Ouray Plaindealer Newspapers alleged the county commissioners selected the P&Z members in a closed executive session. Plaindealer publisher David Mullings had maintained that the discussion and decision-making process should have occurred in open session under Colorado law; and on May 10 filed a complaint to that effect in district court.

The settlement, said Mullings, provides for the county to pay $6,000 in attorney expenses, with him paying the $560 filing fee. However, the Board of County Commissioners still holds the position that they were not in violation of the Open Meetings Law, though they agreed by resolution on May 12 to "conduct its business as permitted and required by law and will be vigilant in its efforts to ensure that all meetings are conducted in compliance with the Colorado Open Meetings Law."

The board also agreed to release a tape recording of the April 3 closed session and added a one-hour session to its regular meeting agenda on Monday to allow Ouray Plaindealer Newspapers, "as well as any other interested persons, to discuss with the board the Planning Commission appointments."

The fast-paced controversy appeared to be headed for a court battle when, on May 17, Mullings amended his legal complaint, alleging that, even though the closed session tape had been released, the appointments were nonetheless improperly noticed; the meeting agenda did not indicate the appointments were going to be considered in executive session; the planning commissioners are public officials, not employees, and as such did not qualify under the law's "personnel" exemption; the commissioners arrived at the decisions in closed session and merely "rubber stamped" them when the board returned to open session; and a proposed policy change regarding suspension of the $200 per month stipend to P&Z members should have been aired in open session.

Mullings claimed that, "actions that are taken improperly in an executive session are void and of no legal effect."

On Wednesday morning, Mullings said of the Board of County Commissioners, "They practically did meet all of the conditions, including rescission, and had an honest open dialogue and paid the bulk of the attorney's fees. They did take extraordinary steps."

Monday's meeting provided the general public an opportunity to offer comment and posit questions to the commissioners about the criteria for selection of P&Z members, and concerns of partisan influences and conflicts of interest due to representation from the real estate and development industry.

P&Z appointee Cockle, a real estate agent with ORI in Ouray, joins Brian Kolowich, a real estate agent with ReMax in Ridgway who has been on the board for over three years. Luttrell, named as an alternate, has been a developer for 50 years. The third appointee, Collins, is a local rancher and listed banking and real estate "transaction" experience in his letter of application.

Cockle defended his appointment and challenged "accusations" of impropriety. "The insinuation that I am pro-growth is outrageous," he said. "I am a realtor. The chances of voting for a development are very nil. I know this county upside down and backwards. I know how the regulatory agencies worked. I will not disrespect those rules."

Commission Chairperson Heidi Albritton said the dynamic of the P&Z board had "become the problem," and not one individual was to blame for its dysfunction. However, she did allege that former P&Z member Greene, who presented a lengthy analysis of the withdrawn XPUD open lands law proposed earlier this year by Elk Meadows resident John Kuijvenhoven, was too "activist."

"He is one of the hardest working members of P&Z," she said, however, "I felt he was being consumed because of the P&Z. He takes everything so intensely personal and I feel he is on a personal crusade. There is a need to find compromise."

On the subject of P&Z dysfunction, former Log Hill resident Steve Slade said, "I've attended many meetings. Dysfunctionality is an issue of the previous P&Z board and resulted from a lack of guidance from staff and not having county counsel at those meetings for so long. There were dead end roads, no guidance. So take responsibility for that."

Questions and comments to the commissioners also addressed whether political partisanship played a role in the selection of Cockle and Collins, who are currently serving as secretary and treasurer of the Ouray County Republican Party, respectively.

Ridgway Ouray Community Council president Ken Lipton, who applied for a seat on the P&Z, said Monday's discussion was a "sanitized version" of the executive session, and that his organization "has argument with the shadowy process and unprofessional manner in which the selection took place. ROCC questions the judgment, fairness and the ability of this BOCC to represent the interests of all county residents manifested by its clearly biased and politically based selection of new P&Z members and its apparent distaste for any manifestation of leadership and critical thinking relative to sensible land use planning."

Several supporters of the commissioners' selections countered that the suit was ill-conceived. "I think that this group is responsible," said David Hamilton. "You'll have every intent to respect the letter of the law. This lawsuit is a frivolous suit and waste of taxpayer's money."

A representative from the San Juan Corridors Coalition, Sara Coulter, disagreed, calling the appointments problematic. "Commissioners and the county attorney seem oblivious or indifferent to the legal violations involved in these appointments," she said. "In addition to the alleged violation of the Sunshine Law, they have appointed people with blatant conflicts of interest."
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