- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2014

The Obama administration’s testy relationship with the press is nothing new for Washington, but it’s now extended to Colorado and has touched off a firestorm after Interior Department officials booted local reporters from a public meeting earlier this week.

Journalists with Colorado's Craig Daily Press and at least two other media outlets were barred from a Tuesday question-and-answer session with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, despite the fact that members of the public were allowed to attend.

“What happened would be in complete alignment with the administration’s policies. We were promised the most transparent administration ever and instead we’ve gotten the opposite,” said Moffat County, Colo., Commissioner John Kinkaid, who attended the meeting along with his two fellow commissioners, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and other officials.

“What Sally Jewell did — it makes total sense. That’s how this administration runs,” Mr. Kinkaid added.

Ms. Jewell, a former retail executive named to the Interior post by President Obama last year, “does not understand what the First Amendment is and what it means to freedom of the press.” said Noelle Leavitt Riley, managing editor of the Craig Daily Press.

Interior spokesman Blake Androff said the secretary closed the meeting to press in order to ensure an “open and frank conversation.”

“We spent more than 60 minutes engaging with five reporters at the ranch and also made the Secretary available to reporters after the meeting,” said Mr. Androff in an email. “The stakeholder meeting was scheduled to last 60 minutes but the secretary personally chose to stay an additional 30 minutes to make sure energy voice was heard. The meeting was closed press to allow for an open and frank conversation but there were many opportunities or reporters to cover the visit.”

The meeting came on the heels of Ms. Jewell’s tour of a ranch in Moffat County. The tour was meant to allow Ms. Jewell the chance to witness “innovative efforts to conserve and enhance habitat for sage grouse,” according to the Interior Department.

Following that tour, Ms. Jewell was to meet with Mr. Kinkaid, Mr. Hickenlooper and other officials for a “stakeholder meeting” on the issue.

Given that all three Moffat County commissioners would be in attendance, Mr. Kinkaid said they advertised the meeting and invited members of the public, in order to comply with Colorado's Sunshine Law.

“That way our bases were covered,” he said.

Billed as a public meeting

Ms. Leavitt Riley said Ms. Jewell’s desire for an open discussion should not have trumped the press’s right to attend what was billed as a public meeting.

“I responded back to the Department of Interior, ‘Look, I appreciate your response, but if American public officials are allowed to close meetings because they want to have frank discussions, then what does that say about our democracy?’” said Ms. Riley.

“The sage grouse issue is huge. We were excited she was coming,” said Ms. Riley. “Her visit was marred by her not putting any forethought into the repercussions of her closing a public meeting to the press. And she put county officials in a bad position.”

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