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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Colorado’s open-government watchdog brings sunlight to agencies

An attorney in Colorado wages a one-man crusade for open meetings and records statewide. What inspires him, and how does he measure success?

(CN) — Colorado attorney Matt Roane advocates for open meetings and public records from school districts and local governments statewide. Since 2019, he’s filed 60 civil complaints in Colorado courts against 47 school districts, two boards of county commissioners, two towns, one metropolitan district and a small city.

“I can’t think of another way to go about trying to change the system,” Roane said in a phone interview from his home in Pagosa Springs, a town in southwestern Colorado. “If I can help get people talking about sunshine laws and paying attention to this stuff, keeping government accountable, then I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Roane’s sunshine lawsuits comprise about 75% of the 80 cases he’s filed in state courts since 2019. Among those cases, a little under half have actually seen litigation, and three-quarters settled without a court ruling.

“I’m very satisfied with that track record,” he said.

Roane compared his work to a police officer giving a warning or traffic ticket to a speeding motorist. His interventions usually result in a school district or a local government changing how they conduct public business. Seldom does he need to file a second suit to alter official habits toward greater transparency.

Roane has become the de facto primary independent attorney in Colorado holding school districts accountable for transparency because the state government does not. 

“There is no Colorado state agency that oversees local school districts’ compliance with the open records and open meetings laws,” said Jeremy​ Meyer, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education.

“If an individual believes the local school district has violated one of these laws, they can take their concern to the courts, and the courts will decide whether the local district complied with these laws,” Meyer said.

Colorado’s hands-off approach to sunshine compliance, Roane said, effectively leaves school boards and local governments unaccountable for transparency.

“How many citizens are willing to pay a lawyer $130 an hour or more to file a lawsuit, possibly spending thousands of dollars, all to obtain a single document or get a school board to hold meetings in public?” he said.

That cost becomes prohibitive.

“I would never hire a lawyer to do what I do,” Roane said.

And, if Roane's successful in his efforts to help make compliance for open meetings and records the normal way that government conducts itself in Colorado?

“I’ll put myself out of business, and that’s OK," he said.

Roane did not envision becoming Colorado’s leading advocate for government transparency. He began his legal career working with his attorney father in Atlanta.

“I have a long history of lawyers in my family. My father is a lawyer, like my grandfather. Most of my cousins are lawyers. The rest of the family still lives in the Atlanta area. I’m the only one who left by moving to Colorado,” he said.

He first worked for a large firm mainly representing corporations, such as a railroad. When he left that firm to begin working with his father, he transitioned to small clients.

“I found that I really prefer representing the little guy, individuals or closely held companies but not corporations,” Roane said.

He decided to go west after a backpacking trip along the Colorado Trail near the Four Corners area.

“A friend bought a small place near Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County. He offered it as a place to stay free if I helped to fix it up,” Roane said. “So, I took a sabbatical from the law for a while, and that’s when I decided to leave the practice with my father and move to the Rockies in 2007.”

His journey toward upholding sunshine laws began when a local reporter asked for his help in 2011 with a Freedom of Information Action under the Colorado Open Records Act.

“That first case did not go well, but I learned a lot in the process of getting up to speed, and I discovered that I really enjoy this area of law," Roane said.

He quickly realized that in Colorado, without many appellate decisions to go on, it's like the wild West. 

"In doing what I do, it’s just me against a county or school district with all their resources," Roane said. "A David versus Goliath mentality appeals to me. I like these kinds of battles where citizens should be entitled to open government without a fight.”

A good part of his enjoyment, he said, comes from determining where the Legislature wants the law to head.

"I also enjoy doing the legal research to counter opposing arguments," he added. "Defense lawyers always come up with a novel theory, so I always have a lot to learn every week.”

One such learning opportunity came recently when a county turned the tables on him in a public records matter. 

When Roane served notice to Archuleta County that he planned to sue to obtain the names of those on a task force considering new policies for short-term rentals (STRs), county manager Derek Woodman filed a preemptive suit against Roane during the 14-day “cooling off” period.

“I had created a task force for STRs, and I determined it would be the most appropriate for them to hold private meeting without outside interference, so I asked the 13 members to sign a nondisclosure agreement saying they would not talk to the local newspaper or others," Woodman told Courthouse News. “I did not want any information getting out prior to their finished work product.”

When Roane asked for a copy of the NDA, Woodman said he sent it to him with the names redacted.

“He replied that if he did not receive those names, he would file a suit. Our county attorney did some research and determined it was appropriate to file suit against him,” Woodman said.

Meanwhile, the STR task force completed its work and made recommendations in February, so Roane was then sent an unredacted copy of the NDA with the names of all participants.

“We had 13 categories to fill on the task force, and it was a cross-section mix representing a broad spectrum of volunteers across county," Woodman said.

Woodman said the task force had 13 categories to fill, including owners, managers and neighbors of STRs, the hospitality and restaurant industry, the school and water districts, and a homeowners association. The slots not filled were from the homeowners association, school district and water district.

Since Roane received the full NDA and the 37-page task force report was published on the county’s website, the county withdrew its preemptive lawsuit as moot.

Roane himself said such a suit against him over sunshine issues is rare. He speculated the motive may have been to forestall litigation costs.

“In this case, I saw no reason for Archuleta (County) to file suit other than that I told them I would,” Roane said.

He wanted to know who was advising the county commissioners about regulations that impact the entire county.

“Keeping citizens in the dark on public matters, even if no one is breaking the law, raises suspicions about why our government leaders are doing it that way," he said.

Categories / Education, Government, Law

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