Uintah County admits closed-door meeting on oil shale violated state law

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

VERNAL — The Uintah County Commission has admitted that it illegally held a closed-door meeting about federal plans to reduce the amount of acreage available for commercial oil shale leasing.

The violation of the Utah Open Meetings Act, however, was only a "technical" one, according to the county.

"The notice for the 10 a.m. (March 27) meeting was posted at 10:04 a.m. (March 26), thus not meeting the public notice requirement by four minutes," deputy Uintah County attorney Jonathan Stearmer wrote in court records filed Wednesday.

State law requires that notice of a public meeting be posted no less than 24 hours before the meeting is to take place, except in emergency situations.

The county's admission was the subject of a special commission meeting Wednesday. It was also included as a footnote on page 7 of an 8-page document Stearmer filed in response to a lawsuit brought against the county commissioners by Sandy Hansen of Vernal.

The county discovered the "technical violation" independent of Hansen's lawsuit, Stearmer wrote.

Hansen, a former attorney, has asked an 8th District judge to rule that the meeting was illegal and invalidate a resolution that was passed by the commissioners as a result of the discussions that were held behind closed doors.

In his filing, Stearmer told the court that commissioners voted Wednesday to "rescind and vacate all matters discussed during the March 27 meeting and to rescind and vacate (the) resolution."

"I read it as an "'Oops, we screwed up and we recognize it,'" Hansen told the Deseret News. "And rather than lose a lawsuit, they're calling a do-over after I've gone to the expense of filing a lawsuit."

The March 27 meeting in Vernal was attended by county commissioners from Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as members of Gov. Gary Herbert's administration and oil shale industry representatives. It was closed based on the commissioners' belief that the issues discussed would be the subject of imminent litigation, one of six reasons a meeting can be closed under the Utah Open Meetings Act, Stearmer said.

"It would be absurd for a person to go to their attorney and say I need to talk to you about whether or not I have a strong legal argument against another person and then say let's invite the public to that conversation," he said when Hansen's lawsuit was filed in early July.

The March "strategy session," as officials have called it, was organized after the BLM announced its intention to drastically reduce the amount of public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that would be made available for commercial oil shale development. The tri-state region is home to the Green River formation, which is estimated to have as many as 800 million barrels of recoverable oil from shale.

Commissioners from Carbon, Duchesne and Uintah counties in Utah, and Mesa, Moffatt and Rio Blanco counties in Colorado, as well as a representative from counties in Wyoming attended the meeting, according to a sign-in sheet obtained by Colorado Common Cause through a public records request and included in Hansen's lawsuit. 

The sign-in sheet also shows that the meeting was attended by Kathleen Clarke, who heads Gov. Gary Herbert's public lands policy office; John Nowoslawski, unconventional energy development manager for the state of Utah; Jeff Hartley, a Utah lobbyist whose clients include major energy companies; and officials with Enefit American Oil, American Shale Oil, and the National Oil Shale Association; as well as several attorneys.

State law does not prohibit government bodies from including third parties in closed meetings. And because the goal of the meeting was to identify what oil shale companies are capable of, it was crucial to have representatives from the industry on hand to explain the current technologies in use, Stearmer has said.

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