We champion the cause of open government. Yet, we’re questioning intentions in recent settlements with a “gotcha” quality that feel like a shakedown.
Matt Roane, a Pagosa Springs attorney well-versed in the Colorado Open Records Act, has continually sued public entities in his own name, recovered legal fees and pocketed settlement money.
While it’s legal, it strikes us as predatory because Roane has no connection to the communities he’s sued.
On Tuesday, the City of Durango shared news of a no-fault settlement of $3,250 between city councilors and Roane, who has filed dozens of lawsuits against school districts and boards alleging violations of the state’s open meetings law. Roane’s legal complaint said the city failed to properly disclose the topic of a July executive session on the transfer of property to La Plata County for a homeless camp. The complaint also said City Clerk Faye Harmer violated CORA by denying Roane’s requests for a recording of a meeting.
It came down to fine points of detail. What was reasonable specificity in the announcement?
Roane argued an executive session recording is public record, not privileged information. The complaint also said the city “could have provided more than three substantive words – ‘possible camp for the unhoused’ – when describing its intended topic of discussion.”
His legal complaint argued the Council “could” have said more about potential campsites, locations and the transfer of property for homeless residents. Everything hinged on the word “could.”
Sure, more details are better. But we see no genuine spirit of serving the public. The city paid Roane to avoid more legal expenses and excessive staff time.
Durango Mayor Barbara Noseworthy bemoaned Roane’s “pattern” of filing such lawsuits, apparently to collect fees rather than promote greater transparency.
This was not the good fight. The only winner was Roane.
Roane has a different perspective. He said he’s often characterized as preying on public bodies to make a buck. “That’s the typical reaction instead of local bodies looking at themselves and accepting responsibility for their own wrongdoing,” he said.
Roane also said if government is going behind closed doors, it must “follow the laws to a T. That’s what the Court of Appeals and the Legislature wrote, not Matt Roane.”
Roane’s niche is suing school boards, challenging whether they properly cited the law and provided enough detail about what they planned to discuss behind closed doors.
Montezuma-Cortez settled a lawsuit with Roane in April for $3,250 (sound familiar?) for alleged open meetings violations by the school board in communications around former Superintendent Risha VanderWey’s resignation. Yes, there were questionable board actions that raised eyebrows. But such clear missteps are not the only actions that prompt Roane to file suit. He targets entities that are technically in the wrong – intentionally or not – then, ultimately, forces them to pay up.
Roane said he’s picking flagrant violations and the lawsuits are “slam dunk.”
Durango’s School District paid Roane $3,250 to settle a suit, too.
In small districts, he said: “Very few people would take money out of their pockets to pay lawyers. Or they don’t have the stomach for it.”
Roane also sued districts in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Gilpin County.
He said behavior is changing – he’s seeing fewer violations. “I’m putting myself out of business,” Roane said
Steve Zansberg, a Denver-based attorney who serves as the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he understands the frustration of government bodies. “It's one thing to represent individual clients who want to bring public bodies into compliance with the law, and to recover their attorney's fees for doing so,” Zansberg said. “It’s quite another for a licensed attorney to represent himself, apparently as a means to generate revenues.”
Zansberg expressed his fear that Roane’s “business model” may prompt lawmakers to revise the law to the detriment of the general public.
Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said: “I am told Mr. Roane has filed at least 45 lawsuits against Colorado school districts, many of these against small rural districts with extremely limited resources. Unlike larger urban districts, rural districts do not employ in-house legal counsel and are forced to spend additional funds on attorneys.
“Our members fully support the important purposes underlying the Open Meetings Law and understand the need for legal process when constituents believe they have been denied access to public information.
“At the outset, Mr. Roane’s efforts led to increased trainings and awareness around the public notice required to lawfully convene an executive session. At this point, our districts simply feel harassed and frustrated by allegations that often involve minor technical violations of the law, with no evidence of concern from local communities, and put school boards in the impossible position of settling to avoid costly litigation.”
As journalists, we strongly defend public access to government meetings and records. But our public entities are not cash cows. To our minds, Roane is misusing sunshine laws for his own personal gain.