As the Colorado Independent’s Susan Greene reports today, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s trips to Durango to “investigate” the recent spill of mine wastewater into the Animas River have local officials crying foul–and may have brushed with violating the law Coffman is charged with protecting yet again:
At the peak of the Animas River crisis, Cynthia Coffman reached out to the Durango City Council and La Plata County Commission and invited each member to dinner. But several of her would-be guests didn’t appreciate what the state Attorney General planned to serve up.
Some are blasting Coffman for ignoring Colorado’s open meetings law. As the state’s top law enforcement official, they say, she should have known better than to try to gather them together in a closed meeting.
“Talk about awkward – being asked by the attorney general herself to violate the law,” Mayor Dean Brookie told The Colorado Independent. “We were all pretty taken aback that she would have created that situation.” [Pols emphasis]
As Greene reports, Coffman asked several members of the Durango city council and La Plata County commissioners to join her for dinner at Durango’s Palace Restaurant on Tuesday, August 11th. The problem with such a meeting, as anyone familiar with Colorado law as it pertains to the conduct of public officials, is that a group of city councillors or county commissioners meeting together to discuss public business without appropriate public notice would be a clear violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law.
And as we’ve noted before with Cynthia Coffman, attorneys general have a higher obligation than other public officials to avoid breaking the law:
“I would expect the Attorney General to know the requirements of the open meetings law. Her request to try to unofficially assemble city council members would be careless at best,” said Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, a group promoting government ethics and accountability throughout the state.
It appears that the conscientiousness of these local officials, who recognized that Attorney General Coffman’s invitation to discuss public business over dinner in private was illegal, may have protected Coffman from yet another instance of breaking the laws she is charged with upholding as the state’s top law enforcement officer–that and a flight delay, of course. But in addition to helping establish a pattern of misconduct by Colorado’s attorney general, there’s another piece of this story that needs to be considered:
“We assumed at first she was there to see if we needed her assistance,” added Mayor Brookie. “We would have really appreciated it if she had reached out to see what we needed like Gov. Hickenlooper did.”
But the locals soon realized that Coffman was scrambling in-state and with neighboring states’ attorneys general to drum up support for a lawsuit against the Obama administration. Some equated her work around the disaster with GOP presidential contender Ben Carson’s campaign stop in Durango to try to make political hay out of the spill. [Pols emphasis]
Coffman didn’t try to reschedule her meeting with council members and commissioners when it became clear from news reports and other channels that, regardless of their political affiliation, they were more interested in collaboration than litigation.
You see, folks, under the radar of sensationalized news coverage, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and eager Republican grandstanding over the Environmental Protection Agency’s role in the Animas River spill, there’s a growing anger over the politicization of the event for unrelated political purposes like attacking the EPA’s clean air rules. There’s a recognition by locals directly impacted by the disaster like the city government of Durango that, far from being “part of the problem,” the EPA was and remains their partner in solving the massive problem of mine waste pollution in Colorado and the West.
So when our Republican attorney general invites local Southwest Colorado officials to break the law for the purpose of trashing the EPA for political points, they have two very good reasons to tell her no.
And to not be very nice about it, either.