ST. GEORGE – Three county commissions privately met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he swung through Southern Utah in May to review two controversial national monuments – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Now those meetings are coming under scrutiny in a lawsuit filed this week by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance alleging Kane and Garfield County Commissioners violated the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act.
According to the complaint, the public was not given notice of the May 10 meeting between the county commissioners and Zinke regarding the future of the almost 21-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. The suit also alleges the county commissioners did not allow members of the public to attend or participate in the meeting.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Salt Lake City 3rd District Court, states in part:
The closed meetings flagrantly violated multiple provisions of the (Open and Public Meetings) act and, if left unchecked, would shield defendants’ activities on important public policy matters from the light of day and deprive Utah citizens of their right to have their public bodies ‘conduct their deliberations openly’. SUWA brings this action to address this threat and put a stop to Defendants’ backdoor policy discussions with high-level government officials.
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock rejected the allegations calling the suit “frivolous.”
“We did nothing wrong,” Pollock said. “I’m not worried about it because we didn’t violate the law.”
Criticizing SUWA for the legal action filed against him, he said SUWA is known for filing lawsuits when “they don’t get what they want.”
“If SUWA is suing me then I am doing my job,” Pollock said. “SUWA is against everything I am for: mining, timber, coal, cattle grazing, jobs, renewable resources. Everything I’m for they are against.”
Pollock declined to discuss the details of the case, citing advice from his counsel.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that SUWA claims it tried to communicate with the commissioners in a letter dated June 13 written by SUWA’s outside attorney, David Reymann with the Salt Lake City law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless. The commissioners however, never responded.
“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,” Reymann wrote in letters to Pollock and Kane County Commission Chairman Dirk Clayson.
“The reasons for proper closure of a meeting are limited and narrow,” Reymann’s letter said, “and none of them apply here.”
The suit this week does not name the San Juan County commissioners, although they received a similar prelitigation letter from SUWA.
The San Juan County Commissioners met with Zinke twice in hopes of convincing him to rescind the recently designated Bears Ears National Monument. Those meetings, that SUWA states were also alleged violations of the law, are being handled separately SUWA staff attorney Laura Peterson said, according the Salt Lake Tribune report.
The tour of the two Utah monuments came just shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order tasking Zinke with review of 27 national monuments for possible elimination or reduction.
Zinke’s recommendations for two dozen large monuments are slated to be released by the end of next week.
The Garfield and Kane commissions have both passed resolutions advocating for a huge reduction of the 1.9 million-acre monument overlapping the counties’ shared border.
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