Shedding sunshine in Durango
Group sues City of Durango over open meetings law

SideStory: Animas-La Plata at a glance

Lake Nighthorse takes shape in Ridges Basin early this spring. The Animas-La Plata project is currently facing an unexpected challenge, a lawsuit alleging that the City of Durango has violated Colorado’s Open Meetings Law./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

Controversy is once again swirling around the Animas-La Plata project. However, this time, scrutiny is hitting the meeting room rather than the pumping plant. Taxpayers for the Animas River has filed suit against the City of Durango, alleging it violated Colorado’s Open Meetings Law in recent years by failing to adequately notify the public about negotiations on the water project. Durango City Hall is remaining hush on the lawsuit and refraining from comment until after the suit has been resolved.

Taxpayers for the Animas River, a long-time opponent of the Animas-La Plata project, filed the suit in early December. In it, the group alleges that the City violated Colorado Open Meetings Law on three separate occasions, when it neglected to provide notice of meetings where City negotiations with A-LP were discussed.

“We’re arguing over what the language means,” said Ashley Wilmes, attorney for Taxpayers for the Animas River. “We believe that it was the intent that the law be interpreted broadly. Citizens should have access to issues that they’re interested in.”

Late in 2008, Michael Black, of Taxpayers for the Animas River, requested specific notification of meetings where A-LP, the Animas River and development along the Animas River would be discussed. Black noted that Colorado’s “Sunshine List” allows citizens to request notification of specific meetings.

On June 22, 2009, the Durango Planning Commission discussed possible annexation of the A-LP pumping plant. A-LP stepped back into City Chambers on July 7 during a Durango City Council meeting and Oct. 12 during a Durango Planning Commission meeting. Black received no notification for any of the meetings.

“The City has failed in their obligation to notify me of many meetings for which I requested notification pursuant to the Sunshine List provision of the Open Meetings Law,” Black said.

Black added that public involvement in the process is critical for a variety of reasons. Foremost, the City of Durango is debating whether or not to buy into A-LP as a future water source. With a projected build-out population of 40,000, the City of Durango will need to look beyond its existing rights on the Animas and Florida rivers for drinking water. To this end, the City spent just more than $1 million in 2005 to cover the installation of equipment that will transfer A-LP water to a city treatment facility. Black alleged that the City is planning to spend an additional $10 million to buy into the water project.

“Given the history of this project and public concern, the City should be conducting its meetings open and honestly with the public,” Black said. “Taxpayers for the Animas River fears the City is intent on buying into ALP without a vote of the citizens, which the law should demand.”

The City of Durango opted to withhold comment on the suit until the litigation is resolved. “The case is still being litigated,” said City Manager Ron LeBlanc. “I’m not really at liberty to comment until the case has been resolved.”

However, the question of the Sunshine List came up during the June 22 Planning Commission meeting in question, where annexation of the A-LP pumping plant was discussed. At that time, City Attorney David Smith attempted to clarify the issue for members of the Planning Commission.

“There is a provision in the Sunshine Act that allows people to request notification of activities or meetings pertaining to particular issues,” Smith said, according to the transcript of the meeting. “It doesn’t say anything about Animas-La Plata. The statute does not address that specifically. As to whether there have been requests for notification that are current with respect to this annexation, I don’t know the answer quite honestly.”

The respective attorneys are currently briefing the court on the issue, and Taxpayers for the Animas River hopes to prevail. “Our intention is to create awareness about the Sunshine List,” Wilmes said. “This gives citizens the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, if only by attending meetings. Enforcing the Open Meetings Law in Durango is important for all citizens and ensures transparency in local government.” •



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows