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Our View: Shining light on meetings, costly lawsuits

Here we go again.

Serial records requester Pagosa Springs attorney Matt Roane gave the city of Durango an ultimatum on Jan. 4: Either City Council approves the release of a recording from a Dec. 12 executive session regarding an evaluation of Tony Maestas, former interim city attorney, or the city faces another lawsuit.

If there’s anything untoward happening in city government, we want to be first in line to know about it. But our understanding is that the city can discuss confidential, personnel matters behind closed doors and be protected by state law.

Because of Roane’s unsavory history of suing government entities – especially school districts – that pay him to go away rather than litigate, our first thought was déjà vu. But this new potential lawsuit is a different animal.

Now, there’s a wrinkle. After that Dec. 12 executive session, Councilor Olivier Bosmans reportedly said he was concerned that discussion ventured away from evaluating Maestas, into general city legal department affairs. He raised the same concern on Jan. 9.

“There is the option to disclose those parts of the executive session meeting that are not personnel related but associated with the functioning of the legal department,” Bosmans said.

This statement gives Roane probable cause.

If the conversation in executive session did veer into general legal affairs territory, did Bosmans – or other councilors – redirect colleagues, holding up hands, asking them to stop?

Bosmans did not respond to requests for comments by deadline, so we don’t know.

We’d like to think councilors would have stuck to the agenda. They’re likely still reeling from the aftereffects of a settled lawsuit with Roane for $3,250 in early December for allegedly failing to properly disclose the topic of a July executive session on the transfer of property to La Plata County for a homeless camp. The city admitted no wrongdoing.

At the time, Roane’s legal 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.” The $3,250 question came down to reasonable specificity.

We’ve raised the question before. What would stop Roane from suing municipalities and school districts – that he has no connection to – over fine points again and again?

Or does Roane actually have something?

We want to get to the bottom of it because Roane’s lawsuits have cost rural governmental bodies a lot of money. As taxpayers, this is your money. We champion open government, and we want attempts at shining more light to be in service to the public. If we’re not being served, we’re getting ripped off. All of us.

The city of Durango must be thoughtful with spending. A settlement would cost less than unknown staff hours tending to one case. But what’s the price tag if multiple lawsuits don’t serve the public? Is it better to go straight to court and let a judge decide?

A precedent could mean a change in legal strategy for school districts, too. Beyond the Southwest, Roane has sued districts in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Gilpin County. Montezuma-Cortez School District settled a lawsuit with Roane in April for $3,250 and, in addition, paid $3,590.50 in outside legal fees. Durango’s School District paid Roane $3,250 to settle a lawsuit, too. We are waiting on a figure for 9-R’s legal expenses, after filing a Colorado Open Records Act request, and expect costs to be in the same ballpark as Montezuma-Cortez’s.

As reported in The Durango Herald on Jan. 11, William Tuthill, newly hired interim city attorney, said Council would not ordinarily disclose that session on Maestas’ evaluation. “In a decent personnel discussion, you discuss not only what people are doing well but what they could do better,” Tuthill said. “Nobody really wants to have that discussion, even though you work for the government, in public. The law recognizes that.”

Tuthill said state statute encourages government transparency and public business should be conducted publicly. But discussions about the city attorney’s office and its workload fall within the scope of personnel matters, which can be held in a private setting.

Maestas’ resignation was announced on Dec. 19 and on the same day, Roane filed an open records request that claimed Council held “substantial discussion of matters other than the annual evaluation of” Maestas. The city denied Roane’s request for the recording, saying the meeting was of an administrative nature.

On Dec. 28, Roane sent an email to the city clerk, stating his intent to challenge the city’s denial in another lawsuit.

Both Maestas and Tuthill suggested Council did stick to the agendized topic. “So I cannot support releasing this tape,” Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said.

We asked Roane for comment. In an email, he responded with, “I’d like to tell you to f---- off.”

Roane did not file a lawsuit by press time.

For now, we’re watching for next steps and wondering what citizens think about all this.

Wes Rowell’s cartoon ran on Dec. 14 in The Durango Herald and The Journal.