Commissioners cautioned to follow law

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Ouray County Attorney Carol Viner cautioned commissioners they need to be wary of becoming too relaxed during public meetings and they need to adhere to state open meetings laws, even as the pandemic drags on and meetings continue to be held virtually.

Viner cautioned commissioners at a May19 virtual meeting about becoming too informal.

“If you are representing county and are on a Zoom meeting you should not be drinking and when you are in a public meeting, a BOCC meeting, no texting. I don’t know how to handle this. I can see things going south quickly,” Viner said.

Viner also said commissioners should not be reading their email or researching things online during meetings.

Commission Chairman Don Batchelder asked Viner to draft a “policies and procedures of behavior-type document for Zoom meetings” to have commissioner approve.

Commissioner John Peters raised the issue of a meeting including commissioners on May 14 that violated open meetings law. Peters and Commissioner Ben Tisdel both attended a meeting held online with local restaurant owners to discuss reopening procedures, prior to commissioners approving a variance application to the state to allow them to resume in-person dining.

According to the Colorado Open Meetings laws, if two or more commissioners attend a meeting the public must have prior notice, as this constitutes a quorum.

Peters said he was invited to the virtual meeting and attended, but later Tisdel logged in. Peters referenced an email from the Plaindealer notifying commissioners of the violation, written to both commissioners and the county attorney during the meeting.

Tisdel argued that the meeting Peters referred to should have been fine for him to attend as the press was there along with some members of the public, and because no decision was made.

“That is not true. You violated the open meeting law, and there is no cure for that,” Viner said.

Viner said the commissioners participating in the restaurants meeting satisfied the definition of a public meeting that should have been properly noticed. She also read commissioners the definition of a meeting: “Any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business in person, by telephone, electronically or by other means of communication.”

“Both of you discussed public business on that meeting together. So we just need to have some protocols around this,” Viner said.

Viner said from now on, if a commissioner logs into a meeting that has not been noticed publicly and sees another commissioner is already on that meeting, they need to leave that meeting to avoid violating the law. She also encouraged the commissioners to consider how they can return to in-person meetings.

“I am not going to be forced back into a compromising health position merely because the county attorney thinks that Zoom meetings are uncomfortable,” Tisdel said.

Viner said she was not forcing commissioners to go back to in-person meetings, telling Tisdel, “You can sit behind your screen all you want”

County Administrator Connie Hunt asked commissioners to notify her or her staff of meetings they will attend so they can notice meetings as public in advance.

“What we need to do is be more diligent in the meetings we are attending to make sure we notify you of the potential of two or more (commissioners attending),” Batchelder told Hunt.

Viner said she was not trying to cast blame, and her job was to make sure commissioners follow the law. She said they were doing a fantastic job, but Zoom just makes it easy to slip up on the formalities.

Batchelder asked Viner to add wording in the policies and procedures document she would draft stating that commissioners would give notice of when they would be attending meetings.