At the peak of the Animas River crisis, Cynthia Coffman reached out to the Durango City Council and La Plata County Commission and invited each member to dinner. But several of her would-be guests didn’t appreciate what the state Attorney General planned to serve up.
Some are blasting Coffman for ignoring Colorado’s open meetings law. As the state’s top law enforcement official, they say, she should have known better than to try to gather them together in a closed meeting.
“Talk about awkward – being asked by the attorney general herself to violate the law,” Mayor Dean Brookie told The Colorado Independent. “We were all pretty taken aback that she would have created that situation.”
Others were irritated by what they saw as Coffman’s attempt to exploit the disaster playing out in the river that is their community’s lifeblood. Coffman’s dinner meeting — which she cancelled because of a travel delay — was meant to rally local support for a politically motivated lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for accidentally releasing toxic orange mine waste into the Animas.
“It started to appear very likely that this was going to be a political step rather than a stateswoman-like step by the Attorney General,” Durango Councilman Dick White said of the dinner meeting. “There’s a suspicion that she was playing politics at a time when nobody needed her coming down to play politics in the middle of our local emergency.
“Partisan politics had no place in this situation.”
Coffman refused comment about the criticisms, which mark the latest in a string of controversies about her using the state’s massive Department of Law as a Republican- and anti-Obama bully pulpit.
“We don’t have a comment about a meeting that didn’t happen,” said her spokesman, Roger Hudson.
The dinner meeting had been planned at Durango’s Palace Restaurant for the evening of Tuesday, August 11 – just after Gov. John Hickenlooper had toured the river and the city council held a special session declaring a local emergency. Coffman had to cancel because a tornado warning in Denver delayed her flight.
Even if she had made it on time, local politicos say she would have been dining alone. After most members of the city council and county commission agreed to her last-minute invitation, they say they soon realized their colleagues also were planning to attend. More than two members of the five-member city council and more than one member of the three-member county commission gathering to discuss official business would have violated the open meetings law, which is designed to ensure governing boards’ openness and transparency.
“I would expect the Attorney General to know the requirements of the open meetings law. Her request to try to unofficially assemble city council members would be careless at best,” said Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, a group promoting government ethics and accountability throughout the state.
“The Attorney General is supposed to represent all the citizens of Colorado. We would hope that she would be mindful of the public’s access to government transparency.”
Julie Westendorff, a county commissioner, gives Coffman the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know what her familiarity is with open meetings rules in respect to local government. I just look at it as probably an oversight rather than some sort of failure,” she said.
Several commissioners and council members told The Independent they accepted Coffman’s dinner invitation out of respect for her office and hope that she could help when they needed it most.
“You have a high elected official coming down during a local emergency, so my initial response was ‘Sure, I’ll go’,” Councilman White said.
“We assumed at first she was there to see if we needed her assistance,” added Mayor Brookie. “We would have really appreciated it if she had reached out to see what we needed like Gov. Hickenlooper did.”
But the locals soon realized that Coffman was scrambling in-state and with neighboring states’ attorneys general to drum up support for a lawsuit against the Obama administration. Some equated her work around the disaster with GOP presidential contender Ben Carson’s campaign stop in Durango to try to make political hay out of the spill.
Coffman didn’t try to reschedule her meeting with council members and commissioners when it became clear from news reports and other channels that, regardless of their political affiliation, they were more interested in collaboration than litigation.
“We need to partner with the EPA, not sue them, to change the course of our mining legacy in the Animas River watershed,” Brookie said.
“We realized pretty quickly this was just an attempt at political maneuvering by the Attorney General and that there was no reason to meet with her because we had real work to do.”