March 2008

A dispute over videotaping in Dolores County

By Gail Binkly

One of the most contentious issues in Dolores County — seismic testing for oil and gas exploration near Cahone — spawned a new controversy Jan. 30, when the chairman of the county planning commission refused to allow a citizen to videotape the board’s meeting.

The Dove Creek Press reported that a near-capacity crowd attended the meeting, which included a scheduled discussion of concerns about the seismic testing by the Bill Barrett Corporation. Leslie Taylor, who is wheelchair-bound, and her friend Jan Erickson were among the audience. Erickson set up a video camera, but Chairman Vernon Lerette told the pair to turn it off and threatened to call the sheriff if they did not.

Lerette said the members of the planning commission are volunteers and did not need to be exposed to the scrutiny of a videotape, according to the Dove Creek Press. Eventually Erickson did turn off the camera.

“I was in my wheelchair up front with Jan,” Taylor told the Free Press. “It was her video camera, but they decided it was mine.”

Taylor, who has multiple sclerosis and a spinal-cord injury from an automobile accident, said she wanted to make the tape for a neighbor undergoing chemo and an elderly friend, neither of whom were able to attend.

She said Lerette didn’t ask anything about the reason for the taping, “he just looked at the camera and ordered it out and said, ‘We can’t be having cameras without our attorneys.’ He said, ‘We’re all volunteers and we just can’t be subject to videotape.’

“I said the public, including the disabled public, have a right to participate in the meeting. I said, ‘Do you understand that under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] you can make a reasonable accommodation for disabled individuals by allowing the videotaping to take place?’

“He said, ‘I don’t care. Robert [Crain, a planner], go get the sheriff’.”

After Crain left, Lerette — who is the disability-rights advocate for the Southwest Region of the Colorado Cross- Disability Coalition — said she tried to explain that the minutes of the meeting did not provide enough detail and she wanted the recordings for her disabled friends, but to no avail.

She said eventually Crain came back without the sheriff and Erickson decided to turn off the recorder anyway.

“So I didn’t get arrested and we didn’t get a video of the meeting for a couple of disabled people who couldn’t be there,” she said.

Taylor has written the planning commission suggesting that they do their own taping of meetings to allow “the disadvantaged and vulnerable to participate,” but had not heard back at press time.

“I can understand your apprehensions about taping or otherwise recording your meetings,” she wrote the board. “There was never any intention to do harm or intimidate the Commission.”

The issue of recording meetings and/or hearings before county planning commissions or county commissions is starting to become more problematic in the Four Corners.

Although many municipalities such as Cortez and Durango offer live TV broadcasts and video recordings of their city-council meetings, county meetings tend to be less formal and lengthier, making recordings more difficult.

In Montezuma County, generally only formal public hearings are taped, and then only by audiotape. Although no one in recent memory has asked to videotape a meeting, a citizen was allowed to make his own audiotape of a portion of a meeting in February.

“We’ll let people tape them, because it’s public anyway,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Larrie Rule. “They can’t put the recorder on our table, but they can put it off to the side.”

He said there have been discussions about recording entire meetings for broadcast, but the expense involved has been a stumbling block.

Lerette told the Free Press that the Dolores County Planning Commission has not yet adopted a policy regarding taping of meetings by outside parties, but that the board probably will start taping its meetings itself because of the increasing interest in land-use questions in the county.

“We probably are going to go to a tape-recording of our meetings,” he said.

“We have been experiencing a huge increase in activities. Some people are looking at subdivisions; we’ve got oil and gas people coming in and some other things happening.”

He emphasized that the five-member board is composed of citizen volunteers. “It’s getting to the point where we’re beginning to wonder if we can volunteer this much time.”

Until recently, Lerette said, “We’ve been a very small county with not much going on.”

At the Jan. 30 meeting, Lerette said, “We ran into a situation where we had some people that were very aggressively opposed to gas and oil. It was my decision that videotaping just would not be a good idea.”

He said his main concern was that the videotape could be edited in ways that would skew how people were presented.

“You know that you can clip news and make things appear very, very different,” he said. “I have been exposed to cases of this where I have chaired in other places, where people can take something like this and turn it into something they want it to appear. I didn’t want that to happen. I don’t want to expose our members to that.”

For that reason, he said, he favors having the planning-commission meetings tape-recorded by the board, “so it’s in the hands of county government and cannot be edited.”

He said nothing in Colorado’s sunshine laws that he could find requires that local governmental bodies allow videotaping by private parties.

“It’s an open meeting, and people are perfectly welcome to come,” he said. “I have never asked anybody not to voice their opinions. We’ll continue to do that. But I don’t think we want to get involved with personal tape recorders and video cameras.”

Lerette said he perhaps could see allowing other people to make audiotapes of meetings if the county was making its own tape at the same time.

However, he said, although it was his decision not to allow the videotaping at the Jan. 30 meeting, it will not be up to him to decide the ultimate policy on the matter.

If someone approaches the Dolores County commissioners and asks to be allowed to videorecord meetings in order to show the tapes to people unable to attend, that decision would be up to the county commissioners, he said.

“If a person wants to go to the county commissioners and this person’s reason was that there were other people who were handicapped who would like to see what went on, and the county commissioners said it was acceptable, it would be acceptable to me, but there would have to be signed letters from those people who were handicapped.”

If a meeting were to be videotaped, anyone who spoke would have to come to the front of the room, Lerette said, and that would slow the alreadylengthy meetings down considerably.

The complexity of planning issues and the increasing growth in Dolores County are such that Lerette wants to have a serious talk with the county commissioners anyway, he said.

“They’re not quite aware that we’re in a real growth pattern,” he said. “We in the southwest corner of Colorado have the last undiscovered, inexpensive land in the Southwest that I know of, and as the Baby Boomers retire, they’re looking for what we have.”