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Left Hand Laurel - Kristin Bjornsen

Series: Left Hand Laurel | Story 7

October 23, 2019

Courtesy Photo

Gunbarrel resident Kristin Bjornsen with her two sons in Gunbarrel's Twin Lakes neighborhood.

In late 2017, Gunbarrel resident Kristin Bjornsen was at an impasse. Following a "spectacular loss" in her lawsuit against Boulder County over violations of Colorado's sunshine laws, the full-time mother-of-two was torn on whether to proceed with a costly and time-consuming appeal or whether to leave the legal battle for government transparency to more seasoned professionals.

"On the one hand I felt like the issues were clear, and I felt like I had clarity if I could just clear away the muddle around them," she said of her pro se suit against the Board of County Commissioners and Boulder County Housing Authority alleging breaches of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and Open Meetings Law (COML) during the Twin Lakes open space debate. "But on the other hand, just about every single person I know-friends and family and the 10 attorneys I talked to-almost universally they said, 'Don't pursue this; your chances are almost impossible'."

Bjornsen wrestled with the decision for weeks, and then one Sunday, she got a sign that she didn't even know she was looking for.

"I was at church, and I heard a hymn and it said, 'be strong and be brave', and so I thought I'm going to trust in God and what will happen will happen and I'm going to go forward with what I think is the truth."

This time, the truth was on Bjornsen's side. In April 2019, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed key portions of two rulings made by the district court judge, and held that county officials had violated CORA and COML in 2016. The appellate court also published the full opinion, making the precedent binding in all the state's 22 judicial districts.

"Not only did it help my case and help transparency in Boulder, it helped in all the counties around Colorado," she said.

Last month, Bjornsen's efforts were recognized by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which selected her for the 2019 Ruth Anna Citizen Champion Award, an honor she termed "surprising" and "humbling."

"When I saw on the phone screen that the call was from CFOIC president Steve Zansberg, I actually braced myself for legal news of some kind," she said. "CFOIC does such good work, and it was such an honor to receive this award, and it was so inspiring to meet Ruth Anna, who led the way for so long for transparency."

Anna is a former Colorado journalist and communications professional who championed the First Amendment and open records laws over her 45-year career. Also receiving awards from the nonpartisan press advocacy group were former Denver Post attorney Tom Kelley, Sen. Mike Foote, and Rep. James Coleman.

Bjornsen's improbable journey to the CFOIC awards ceremony was anything but smooth. It started back in 2016, when she joined the Twin Lakes Action Group, a non-profit organization formed to oppose a change to the county land use code that would have paved the way for high density housing in the Gunbarrel wildlife corridor. Eventually, the debate grew heated, and Bjornsen and her group started to notice gaps in the county's record-keeping on the matter.

"I was surprised at how many meetings and documents were kept in the dark, so I started researching the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Law, which I had never read before," she said. "Then when I was reading, I thought, 'Wait, things aren't matching up here. The county isn't conducting things according to the statute'."

Convinced the facts were on her side, Bjornsen initiated court action after attempts to address her concerns with county officials directly were rebuffed. Soon, she found herself trying to navigate a complex legal maze without much more than some friendly advice, an account with the research service Lexis/Nexis, and "cup after cup after cup" of coffee.

"It was learn-as-you-go," Bjornsen said, adding that CFOIC also provided assistance. "I didn't know what a complaint was, I didn't know what a brief was-it was like stumbling around in the dark with a flashlight, seeing a little bit here and a little bit more over there."

In district court, that inexperience proved hard to overlook, and Bjornsen admitted that her setback there left her "despondent." However, it didn't do anything to lessen her conviction that government accountability is a value worth fighting for, even when the odds seem long.

Courtesy Photo

Gunbarrel resident Kristin Bjornsen received the 2019 Ruth Anna Citizen Champion Award from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition for her efforts to make Boulder County officials comply with the state's open records laws.

"My goal was just to spray a little Windex on transparency in Boulder County, and I encourage other citizens to do the same," she said. "I think it's one thing, no matter where you sit, that we can all agree on-we should know what our government is doing and have accurate, true information."

County officials declined to pursue further action after the appellate court's decision, and Bjornsen's attention is now squarely focused on matters a little closer to home-her family, her volunteer work at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, and the ongoing efforts to protect Twin Lakes from development. Although feelings are still raw from the 2016 fight, Bjornsen is hopeful that the county will eventually make things right with Gunbarrel residents.

"This doesn't have to be polarizing," she said. "We can find a solution that's a win-win for everybody if people are willing to have those conversations in an honest, transparent way."


Reader Comments

Figgy writes:

Congratulations to you, Ms. Bjornsen, for having the guts, determination and persistence to do the right thing. There is evidence everywhere we look of government entities running roughshod over the public when it is in their best interest. In the most egregious cases, they simply seem to feel that they are no longer answerable to the public they serve and whose dollars fund them. You are appreciated.


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