During his May swing through Utah to review national monuments, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had private meetings with three county commissions whose counties host two of the most controversial monuments under scrutiny — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Now the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has sued, alleging Kane and Garfield commissions’ May 10 meetings were illegal because they were not posted as required under Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.
“The closed meetings flagrantly violated multiple provisions of the act and, if left unchecked, would shield defendants’ activities on important public policy matters from the light of day,” says the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Utah’s 3rd District Court.
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock dismissed the allegation as “frivolous.”
“I know it is. We didn’t violate it,” Pollock said. “We didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not worried.
He declined to discuss the meetings further, citing advice from counsel. His Kane counterpart Dirk Clayson also rejected the suit’s contentions.
“We understand the open meeting obligations the county has and deny any wrongdoing under the act,” Clayson said. “There are a whole bunch of reasons we won’t go into it. We think it unfortunate that SUWA has filed another lawsuit rather than engage in meaningful dialogue.”
SUWA claims it had sought dialogue with the counties on the matter, but their commissioners did not respond to the group’s June 13 request.
“Governmental bodies are not entitled to operate and conduct policy discussions in secret, particularly when they are meeting with high-level government officials and discussing matters that would affect thousands of citizens of this state,” wrote SUWA’s outside lawyer David Reymann, in letters to Pollock and Clayson.
“The reasons for proper closure of a meeting are limited and narrow,” Reymann‘s letter said, ”and none of them apply here.”
The Garfield and Kane commissions have both passed resolutions insisting on big reductions to the 1.9-million-acre monument straddling their shared border.
During his visit to Kanab while touring Grand Staircase, Zinke drew criticism for not meeting with pro-monument groups, including the Escalante and Boulder Chamber of Commerce, while hearing almost exclusively from local anti-monument leaders and ranchers.
Zinke is scheduled to release his recommendations for two dozen large monuments by the end of next week.
SUWA sent a similar pre-litigation letter to San Juan County, whose commissioners met twice with Zinke to convey their hope that President Donald Trump will rescind the recently designated Bears Ears. None of the counties responded to the letters.
The suit filed this week does not name San Juan County, whose alleged violations are being handled separately, according to SUWA staff attorney Laura Peterson.
After the San Juan commission met with Zinke in Washington on May 2, Commissioner Bruce Adams told The Salt Lake Tribune that the open-meeting law did not apply because the three commissioners were not gathering to make a decision.
That’s a misconstruction of the law, according to Peterson.
“The law is pretty clear that it doesn’t just apply when there is an official action,” Peterson said. “It includes convening to discuss a public matter.”
“It undermines public trust of government because decisions aren’t being made in open, but behind closed doors,” she said. ”The future of national monuments is something that should be discussed publicly.”