SALT LAKE CITY — A conservation group can resume its legal push to find out what happened during private meetings between leaders of three Utah counties and federal public lands officials before the sharp downsizing of two national monuments, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in two decisions released Thursday.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance alleges the Kane and Garfield county commissions violated state public meeting laws in 2017 when they met with then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke without posting notice ahead of time.
The group said the San Juan County Commission did so as well when it met with other U.S. Interior Department officials the same year.
The state's high court didn't rule on the meetings but said the group has enough of a case to move forward.
Then-President Donald Trump's proclamation from the Utah State Capitol in 2017 shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half, rolling back protections from prior Democratic presidents. President Joe Biden has said he will reverse the moves by his predecessor.
The Utah counties have contended the meetings weren't subject to the state public meeting requirements because the federal government, not the county, has the power to change monument boundaries.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance countered that the discussions were more than philosophical, touching on local issues. It has noted Trump had directed Zinke to consult the counties about how the potential downsizing would affect them.
Alliance staff attorney Laura Peterson said the public "had every right to know what these commissioners were saying behind closed doors about the fate" of the monuments.
"We're grateful the Supreme Court has cleared the way for these important lawsuits to proceed," Peterson said in a statement.
(The public) had every right to know what these commissioners were saying behind closed doors about the fate (of the monuments).
–Laura Peterson, Alliance staff attorney
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock told the Deseret News that an overwhelming majority of his constituents have supported the county as it has fought the claims. He claims the environmental group has promoted a false narrative and has continued its legal efforts in order to deplete county resources.
"It was proven in court once and they don't like it, and so they're throwing a fit," Pollock continued. "They're not going to win on it. They're going to drag it out to keep it in the public eye like we've done something wrong. We've done nothing wrong."
Attorney Peter Stirba, who is representing Garfield County, said its actions were completely appropriate and it will continue to litigate the case.
They're going to drag it out to keep it in the public eye like we've done something wrong. We've done nothing wrong.
–Leland Pollock, Garfield County Commission Chairman
In the pair of decisions released Thursday, the Utah Supreme Court overturned rulings from 6th and 7th district judges who had concluded the environmental group lacked legal standing to bring the case.
The Supreme Court justices disagreed, noting that the group lost out on a chance to attend and participate in the meetings. And while the nonprofit may or may not win in the end, its allegations are sufficient to survive early motions to dismiss, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote in the opinions. His four colleagues concurred.
In San Juan County, 7th District Judge Lyle Anderson had gone a step beyond simply tossing the suit, Durrant wrote. Anderson sanctioned the group after concluding that its claims were frivolous and that it had "initiated the lawsuit for an improper purpose" — conclusions based in part on the judge's review of several blog posts on the organization's site that hadn't been presented in court.
Durrant admonished the lower court judge, referencing a portion of judicial conduct code barring judges from investigating a case for themselves.
"Courts should refrain from this type of independent factual investigation," Durrant wrote of Anderson's actions.
Attorney David Reymann, who represented the alliance, said the court's decisions are a victory not just for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance but for everyday Utahns who deserve to know about policy debates, especially when a full government body is present.
The court decisions are a recognition that "the public isn't just required to take the government's word for what happens during a closed meeting," Reymann said. "If there's a legitimate basis to believe that the meeting should have been open, you're entitled to test that under the Open Meetings Act."
In the next stage, when the cases are remanded to the district courts, the wilderness alliance will begin trying to reconstruct what happened during the meetings with Interior Department officials. But after a three-year delay, the discussions are further from memory and the public may not ever learn the entirety of what happened, Reymann said.
Utah's open meetings law requires 24 hours' notice of meetings, followed by the posting of written minutes or a recording afterward. It's not yet clear whether there's any record of the closed-door discussions with Zinke.
Reymann said the law's purpose is to bring debate about controversial issues into the open so that when decisions are made, the public understands the reasons for them and trusts in government.
"When meetings are held in secret, that purpose fails," he said. "People assume the worst."