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Lawyer finds his niche as government watchdog

Matt Roane has filed several lawsuits over supposed open record violations
Attorney Matt Roane says he hopes his work with open records law inspires others to become government watchdogs.

Matt Roane, an attorney in Archuleta County, knows he is not universally loved, but he hopes his work fighting open records issues will spur a movement of government watchdogs.

Roane has found a niche in his law practice, monitoring local government and challenging issues where he believes town or county officials have violated open records laws.

When he’s won, Roane has recovered attorney fees for his time and work.

And it’s this model – being reimbursed to challenge the government – that he hopes others will follow to more closely keep tabs on local government.

“This could start a groundswell of local watchdogs who are self-funded, if you’re successful,” he said. “If you’re not, all you’ve donated is your time.”

Roane, an Atlanta native, started his career working on big cases like the CSX Transportation lawsuit, filed by employees who claimed a number of health issues from working at the major railway.

But drawn to the outdoors and scenery, Roane moved to Pagosa Springs in 2007. There, he found his particular slice of practice, which he calls “helping the little guy fight for his rights.”

His first success came in 2016, when a Pagosa Springs resident retained Roane to file a lawsuit under the Colorado Sunshine Law, claiming the Town Council met behind closed doors with a “contract adversary” over a proposed development.

Audio of the meeting, the town argued, was not releasable to the public. But through Roane’s litigation, Judge Gregory Lyman listened to the session and agreed it fell into the realm of preliminary negotiations and should be public.

Town officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Not only was the audio released, Roane received about $35,000 for his work.

More recently, Roane, acting on his own accord, filed a lawsuit for audio from a closed executive decision in 2019 in which Archuleta County decided to end participation in the 1033 Program, which provides free military supplies to local law enforcement.

At the time, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation was investigating the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion funds were missing.

Archuleta County officials also did not respond to a request for comment.

Roane argued, however, that major decisions like ending participation in the program could not be made in a closed session.

“This benefited (the county) $3 million worth of free military equipment,” he said. “If you’re going to cut off that much support to the community, voters ought to have a chance to hear why.”

Judge Jeffery Wilson agreed with Roane, and in October 2019 ordered the release of the audio. Although no financial wrongdoing was found, Roane was awarded $10,000 for his efforts.

Eric Hogue, 6th Judicial District court administrator, who comments on behalf of local judges, declined to comment.

Roane understands his critics say he’s out for money. But he adamantly disagrees. By receiving attorney fees, he can dedicate time and effort to challenge questionable government behavior.

The Archuleta County case, for instance, took 60 hours of billable time, not including 15 to 20 hours of research time not reimbursable.

“I can’t afford to do it just as a hobby,” he said. “I don’t think this is a windfall for anyone. It’s important work ... otherwise, the behavior would go unchallenged.”

Two of his cases have not succeeded, but in both, the judge found enough merit to review evidence for potential wrongdoing.

“It’s a humbling practice; you always have to remind yourself they (defendants) maybe didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “But I’ve at least never had a case where a judge says there’s nothing here to warrant time to review.”

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said there aren’t a lot of attorneys in the state who specialize in challenging violations of the open-government laws.

“Having Matt take on these cases is great for residents of Southwest Colorado who care about public access to government meetings and records,” he said. “His recent work to obtain the disclosure of a county commission’s executive session recording was unusual in that attorney fees typically aren’t awarded when an attorney represents him or herself. It probably says something about the strength of the case he made.”

Roane is working on a case questioning whether the Archuleta School District selected a superintendent behind closed doors. It awaits a judge’s review.

He said Archuleta County is not an anomaly.

“Archuleta County is no different than other communities, I just happen to be there and witness it,” he said. “They’re trying to do good for their community, but they want to do it in the easiest, cleanest way possible.”

Roane said he prefers to avoid litigation and hopes the system is fixed so it’s not necessary.

“Everyone needs to get creative about the process until the state Legislature makes it easier for us all,” he said. “We all need to fight over openness issues.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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