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Lawsuit accuses Uintah County commissioners of violating Open Meetings Act

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 7:40 p.m. MDT

VERNAL — A Vernal woman is challenging the legality of a closed-door meeting that involved county commissioners from Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and representatives from several oil shale companies.

Sandy Hansen filed a lawsuit Monday in 8th District Court, alleging that Uintah County commissioners Darlene Burns, Mike McKee and Mark Raymond broke state law when they hosted the March 27 meeting in Vernal.

Hansen wants a judge to declare the meeting an "invalid violation" of the Utah Open Meetings Act and prevent the commissioners from taking any official action based on discussions that took place behind closed doors. She also wants a resolution the commissioners passed on April 9 deemed "null and void," arguing that the language for the resolution was crafted during the closed-door meeting.

"Sandy should be applauded for standing up to local officials who care more about lobbyists for (oil shale companies) than they do for the people in their communities," said Matt Garrington, co-director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Denver-based government and industry watchdog group.

Deputy Uintah County Attorney Jonathan Stearmer declined to comment on Hansen's lawsuit, but defended the county's decision to close the March 27 meeting. The closure, he said, was 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.

"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 coversation," Stearmer said.

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.

The counties have learned that the federal government represents a "moving target" when it comes to energy development on public lands, Stearmer said. He pointed to the the 2009 decision by the Obama administration to rescind 77 oil and natural gas leases in Utah that had been auctioned off by the BLM during the waning days of the Bush administration as a specific example.

"With that moving target, at any given time, the county needs to make sure that it's preserving all of its legal remedies, its arguments and giving notice to the federal government," Stearmer said.

"So in order to weigh the strengths and merits of any of those grievances, we needed to go into closed session," he added.

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, Stearmer said. 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, he said.

"It's kind of the example of, if you want to learn about a particular religion, do you go to the people who are just spouting anti stuff about that religion, or would it make sense to go and talk to someone who practices it?" Stearmer said.

As a result of the meeting, most of the counties involved passed nearly identical resolutions lambasting the BLM proposal to slash the amount of land available for oil shale leasing from about 2 million acres to 462,000 acres, and calling on the agency to abandon the plan.

In Carbon, Duchesne and Uintah counties, those resolutions were presented in open meetings and then voted upon by the commissioners. The measures were also touted in an April 24 meeting that was advertised publicly and attended by members of the public and the media, Stearmer said.

During that meeting, county officials also blasted the BLM proposal, which came about as part of a settlement agreement that was reached to resolve a 2009 lawsuit filed against the agency by a coalition of environmental groups.

"We cannot stand by and watch this gross reduction of acreage without contemplating some serious legal action," said Mark Ward, senior policy analyst and attorney for the Utah Association of Counties.

"The very rule of law that makes this country work is strained to the breaking point," Ward added.

But Garrington, with the Checks and Balances Project, maintains that the way county commissioners secretly formulated their resolutions with the help of industry also fails to meet acceptable legal standards.

"We believe it was unethical and illegal," he said.

The Utah Attorney General's Office does investigate allegations of Open Meetings Act violations when a complaint is filed, spokesman Paul Murphy said Tuesday.

"As far as I know, no one has filed a complaint with our office" about the Vernal meeting, Murphy said.

Attempts to reach Hansen by phone Tuesday to discuss her lawsuit were unsuccessful.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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