The Weld County Council says Weld County Commissioners are OK to advocate for 51st State Initiative

51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record
51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record

Update: The editorial board of The Greeley Tribune are blasting the Weld County Council over their decision:

If the members of the Weld County Council were trying to throw away their credibility and violate the public’s trust, they accomplished their goals when they voted in secret to table an inquiry into the Board of Weld County Commissioners’ secession efforts and then withheld that decision from the public for more than a week.

From the start three weeks ago, when a group of Greeley attorneys sent a letter to the council questioning the authority of the Weld County commissioners to initiate the 51st state movement and seeking a decision from an independent attorney, the council faced a minefield of potential conflicts of interest and questions about fairness.

» One member of the council, Jeffrey Hare, is a vocal supporter of secession who has played a key role in organizing the 51st state initiative.

» Two other members of the five-member council also have publicly voiced support for secession, the Greeley attorneys said.

» The council’s attorney, Bruce Barker, also represents the commissioners, which calls into question his ability to offer an impartial decision.

Late Wednesday, the council, which is charged with overseeing the commissioners, announced its decision to drop the inquiry in a news release, stating commissioners were acting within their authority. Council Chairman Don Mueller said the decision was made following executive session deliberations, which came at the end of an Oct. 21 public meeting.

However, by the time council members made their announcement about going into executive session — and made their decision — nearly all of the roughly 100 people who had turned up for the meeting were gone, including the council’s attorney. They were gone because Mueller said during the meeting that the council would not make a decision that night. Additionally, the agenda for the meeting made no reference to an executive decision or to a vote.

On Tuesday, Mueller told the Tribune that no decision had been made.

The next day, after announcing the decision, Mueller said council members had debated keeping the decision secret until after Tuesday’s election, when voters would make a decision on a secession-related ballot question.

The council’s behavior evokes the worst kind of back-room dealings and shady politics that have led many Americans to feel jaded about their government. But it’s worse than that. The council’s decision to go into executive session raises a host of questions about whether council members acted legally. According to Colorado open records law, local executive sessions are limited to discussions on security arrangements, property transactions, negotiations (such as with employee organizations), personnel or to seek the advice of legal counsel.

The council did not get legal advice — the only justification for an executive session in this context — because its attorney wasn’t there.

It’s easy, of course, to view these actions as a cynical, calculated and overt effort to keep the public from knowing what its elected representatives were doing. However, we know the members of the county council, and we know they are honest, hardworking public servants. That suggests simple incompetence is the most likely explanation for the council’s blatant breach of the public’s trust.

Still, that doesn’t excuse it.

The members of the council trampled upon the most basic tenant of democracy, which state’s that the people’s business must be conducted in public. In doing so, they stooped to the same kind of closed-door tactics that supporters of secession claim spurred them to seek a split from the state.

To say that we’re bitterly disappointed is an understatement. We all deserve much better from our elected representatives.

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

The Weld County Council on Wednesday announced a decision that Weld County Commissioners can advocate for the 51st state question, bringing to light a legally questionable procedure before the council voted on the matter and misleading statements about when a decision would be made. Council members voted at an Oct. 21 hearing that county commissioners have legal authority to advocate for the 51st state movement, even though they said during the hearing and again this week that they had not yet made a decision on the matter. Don Mueller, chairman of the county council, said members called a short recess after the Oct. 21 hearing and then went into an executive session to discuss it. They then came out of the executive session and voted in favor of a statement that says the ballot initiative does not increase or expand Weld County commissioners’ power beyond what is statutorily allowed.

According to Colorado open meeting law, local governmental executive sessions are limited to discussions on security arrangements, property transactions, negotiations, such as with employee organizations, personnel, or to seek the advice of legal counsel, and entities must announce that they are going into a session and why.

Mueller said the county council did announce publicly that they would go into executive session. But the council had called a recess first and most people who attended the hearing had left by the time the executive session was announced. Council members only discussed the 51st state issue but did not seek any legal advice, he said.

Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker said he was not present for the discussion.

During the hearing on Oct. 21, Mueller said council members would digest the information presented to them and that they would not make a decision that night.

“Our function this evening is that of listeners,” Mueller said at the hearing.

In the agenda posted for that Weld County Council meeting, there is also no indication the council would go into an executive session.

Mueller said four members of the five-member council voted in favor of the action, with Bernard Kinnick voting against it because he wanted to wait to take any action until after Election Day. One member of the county council, Jeffrey Hare, helped organize the 51st state initiative and serves as its spokesman.

Mueller told The Tribune in an interview on Tuesday that members had still not taken any official action on the matter, and that council members would not hire an independent attorney or make any decision until sometime next week.

Mueller said on Wednesday the council was, in fact, waiting to announce its vote, and later decided the vote should be made public. He said the vote will not technically be final until recorded minutes are approved at the county council’s next meeting.

Bob Ruyle, one of three Greeley attorneys who called on the Weld County Council to review commissioners’ authority regarding the 51st state initiative, said they had recently submitted written responses to Barker’s arguments, so it’s a shame those arguments won’t ever be reviewed.

The three men argued that Weld commissioners can’t legally spend time and money exploring the 51st state and lobbying state lawmakers to push it forward. They said the state Constitution explicitly says only Colorado citizens have the authority to alter or dissolve their government, but the power of commissioners is limited to what is listed in state statute.

“All I can tell you is, we tried, and are disappointed in the results,” Ruyle said.

Barker said at the council meeting last week that there are ways for commissioners to legally express support for the 51st state to lawmakers if it passes, and he said the only official action commissioners have taken on the movement so far was a resolution to put it on the ballot, which is within their scope of power.

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

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