July 23, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Violations of Open Meeting Law Can be “Cured” if Subsequent Meeting Meets Open Meeting Law’s Requirements

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition v. Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation on August 30, 2012.

Curing an Open Meetings Law Violation—Summary Judgment.

In this action alleging violations of the Open Meetings Law (OML), plaintiffs, the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition (COHVCo) and several nonprofit corporations and interested citizens, appealed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendant, the Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (Board). Plaintiffs also appealed the court’s order denying them costs and attorney fees. The judgment and order were affirmed.

The Board is responsible for managing all state parks and outdoor recreation areas and for administering all state park and outdoor recreation programs. One such program is the off-highway vehicle (OHV) program. Under the OHV Act, annual registration and permit fees are placed in the OHV Recreation Fund and are required to be used for specified OHV purposes. For several years, the Board has made a portion of the OHV funds available through a grant process awarded by the OHV Subcommittee, though the Board retains final authority to allocate the grant funds.

In November 2009, the Board provided notice and held a public meeting regarding possible changes to the OHV grant program and subcommittee. Notice of subsequent public meetings was made and meetings were held in January, February, March, May, and July of 2010. During the course of these proceedings, three violations of the OML occurred: (1) on March 19, following the meeting, the Board discussed proposed changes to the OHV program and the OHV Subcommittee via e-mail; (2) on April 28, the Board held a meeting via telephone and e-mail to discuss the proposed changes; and (3) on June 7, an “OHV Program Modifications Roundtable” was convened by the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation to discuss the proposed changes (all Board members were notified, two attended, and one actively participated in this meeting).

After the June 7 meeting, COHVCo sent the Board a letter alleging it had violated the OML and subsequently alleged violations of the OML regarding the March 19 and April 28 meetings. On July 16, at its regularly scheduled public meeting, the Board was briefed by the Attorney General regarding the legal implications of the alleged violations. The meeting was well attended by all interested parties and numerous “key” parties commented on record. Ultimately, the Board unanimously approved the changes.

Plaintiffs sued the Board in August 2010. In its answer, the Board admitted to the three OML violations and plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and requested costs and attorney fees. The Board argued the OML violations “were all effectively remedied” by the July 16 public meeting. Following an extensive hearing, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board and denied the request for costs and attorney fees, because the “Board cured any violation of the OML before the initiation of this lawsuit.”

On appeal, plaintiffs argued it was error to find that the Board “cured” the three OML violations. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court noted that the OML does not explicitly address whether a violation can be cured by holding a subsequent meeting that complies with the act. However, Colorado case law on the OML implies a public body may do so as long as it isn’t merely “rubber stamping” the earlier decision. The Court found that the July 16 meeting that effected the cure was not a rubber stamping of an earlier decision.

Plaintiffs also appealed the denial of their costs and attorney fees. The Court agreed with the district court that the Board “cured” the previous violation of the OML and therefore no costs or fees should have been awarded to plaintiffs. The judgment and order were affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

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