My view: Don't close the door on the public

By Maryann Martindale

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This past spring, county commissioners from Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, and Utah state officials met behind closed doors with oil shale lobbyists in Vernal. According to emails secured through public records requests, they met to develop a unified strategy and joint resolutions that, if enacted, would hand over 2 million acres of public land for oil shale speculation, an unproven energy source that's already cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Public business, especially when done in a public building and in the presence of elected officials, should be conducted in the light of day. Instead, the Uintah County Commissioners blocked public access to the meeting. That's not how we do things in Utah, behind closed doors and in the shadows.

One of the key principles of a democracy is that the ultimate authority is vested in the people and exercised indirectly through representatives we elect. Unfortunately, these county commissioners seem to be more interested in doing special favors for oil shale companies than standing up for the Utah families they were elected to represent.

Since the meeting in Vernal, the Uintah County Commissioners have stonewalled requests to make all documents related to the meeting public. While they've granted access to some, they still refuse to release the minutes and other documents from the meeting.

Tom Jankovsky, a commissioner in Garfield County, siad Colorado initially claimed the March meeting was "informational," and that participants were "mostly there to listen." However, documents obtained from open records requests show that Jankovsky and Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee organized the meeting and intended for action to be taken.

The released documents also show that at the same time the Uintah County Commissioners were refusing to admit the public to the meeting, they secretly invited lobbyists representing the oil shale companies, Read Leaf Resources, American Shale Oil and the National Oil Shale Association. The commissioners then allowed those very same lobbyists to directly influence the wording and content of the oil shale resolution passed by Uintah County, and several other counties, several weeks after the closed door meeting.

The Uintah County Commissioners said that they met to discuss "pending or imminent litigation," and as such are exempt from Utah's Open Meeting Act. Yet no litigation has been filed against the federal government's proposed plan for oil shale development. Nor is litigation likely anytime soon, since the proposed plan won't be released until December, at the earliest. Thus, the "litigation" defense offered up the county is, at best, misleading; at worst, it is false and was provided to intentionally hide the true purpose for the meeting from the public.

The commissioners' secret, closed door meeting with oil shale lobbyists was a complete failure in good government. Our commissioners gave industry lobbyists special treatment, blocked public participation and misled the public and press about the intent of the meeting. And still today, they continue to block access to public records.

The actions of the county commissioners and Utah state officials are unacceptable. Uintah County's Commissioners should immediately release all of the records related to the March 27th meeting. They, and the other elected officials who participated in the session, should also pledge to stop meeting in secret to discuss public business and to rescind the related oil shale resolutions.

Public business should be done in public, not with lobbyists in smoke-filled back rooms.

Maryann Martindale is the executive director of Alliance for a Better UTAH.

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