SAGUACHE — The long-fought battle for access to recordings of Saguache County Commissioner meetings may not be over after all, despite the county’s installation of a new portable recording system in September.
Freelance writer Lisa Cyriacks of Crestone first spoke in person to County Clerk and Recorder Carla Gomez on Sept. 27 and verbally requested she be emailed a copy of the recording of the county commissioners meeting from the previous day. Cyriacks says she never received the recording from the clerk’s office.
On Monday, Oct. 23, Cyriacks emailed a formal Colorado Open Records request to Gomez with copies also going to County Attorney Ben Gibbons, the three Saguache commissioners and County Co-Administrators Wendi Maez and Lyn Zimmer-Lambert. Her request for the Sept. 26 meeting recording read in part:
“I am a member of the Colorado Press Association (Member #211), and this request is related to news gathering purposes. If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me prior to commencing the fulfillment of this CORA request.
“I ask that records available in electronic format be transmitted by email or that the recording be made available on the county’s official website.
“If you deny any portion, or all, of this request, please provide me with a written explanation of the reasons for your denial, including a specific citation to each specific statutory exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.
“If you conclude that portions of the records that I request are exempt from disclosure, please release the remainder of such records for inspection and copying, redacting only the portion or portions that you claim are exempt.”
Gomez did not respond until Nov. 9, two days after the Nov. 7 election. Current state election rules do not require county clerks to respond to CORA requests for election materials until after the election. But requests not related to the election are not covered under that rule and must be filled within the three business-day time frame indicated in the statutes.
The response from Gomez to Cyriacks read: “The minutes for the Sept. 26 meeting are on the county’s website, under BOCC meeting minutes, 2017.” On Nov. 13, Cyriacks renewed her request, noting to Gomez that it was not the minutes she was requesting but a copy of the meeting recording.
At press time, Gomez had finally agreed to deliver the recording of the meeting by disc or flash drive to Cyriaks.
Recording equipment discussion
In June, Saguache County Commissioners approved a measure to purchase recording equipment and make audio recordings of their meetings, which then can be made available to members of the public unable to attend meetings during the week.
Commissioners officially began recording their meetings Sept. 26.
When asked at the Sept. 26 meeting if recordings would be available immediately to the public, Commissioner Chair Tim Lovato said the board is still determining how and when the recordings will be released, insisting the written minutes are still the official record, not the recordings.
Cyriacks mentioned at the time Lovato made the statement that she was concerned commissioners were considering altering the recordings to reflect the meeting minutes. State statutes forbid the altering of any public document.
Typically, minutes are not available from the county for consultation or article-writing until the following month at the earliest, making it difficult for the press to advise readers of county news in a timely fashion. It was this problem that fueled the renewed requests for recordings, which began in 2011.
Commissioner Jason Anderson acknowledged the observations and said they would be considered when the board decides how and when the recordings will be made available to the public. Lovato said the board would address the issue in October, but nothing has been decided to date.
The need to record meetings has been discussed since the 2012 election cycle. Previous commissioners did not feel recording was a good idea.
Gomez campaigned for the recordings, but research into the matter took a backseat to election and financial problems in the county for a time and have only recently come once again to the forefront.
The push to record Saguache County Commissioner meetings first began as the result of a lawsuit brought by Valley Publishing and the Center Post-Dispatch against Saguache County in 2010 for failure to properly conduct executive sessions. Later Colorado Press Association attorney Steve Zansberg recommended recording the meetings when further incidents were reported.
Commissioner Jason Anderson and to a lesser degree, Ken Anderson, both made campaign promises to record meetings when running for office in 2012. Former commissioners had opposed recording the meetings following the 2010 election controversy and resulting need for greater transparency.
An impromptu survey done two years ago showed that most surrounding counties have recorded their meetings for years and make the recordings available to county residents. Some even post videos of their entire meetings to YouTube or their websites.
A 2014 letter written to commissioners by Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition President Steven Zansberg advised commissioners it was “uncontestable” they had been in violation of the open meetings law on numerous occasions, and suggested recording their meetings as a remedy for the situation.