Attorney claims Pitkin County broke open meetings law
A Pagosa Springs attorney who successfully obtained private recordings from the Aspen School District in May now has the Pitkin County government in his aim.
Attorney Matt Roane took civil action last week against Pitkin County, accusing it of violating the state’s open meeting laws Oct. 20 when it didn’t broadcast the entire public portion of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners work session.
Because of the pandemic, the county’s administration building is closed and its board meetings prohibit public attendance; however, the county broadcasts commissioners meetings on its home page.
Roane’s lawsuit said the county’s website failed to broadcast a public portion of the Board of County Commissioners meeting from 11 a.m. to 11:16 a.m. During that segment, commissioners voted to go into a private discussion, which is known as an executive session, where they were to talk about a ditch and jail litigation, and with an attorney about a solar-power application. The commissioners’ vote to enter executive session should have been broadcast to the public, Roane’s suit contended.
“I had a preliminary discussion with both the county attorney and county manager before filing this,” Roane said Monday. “And what came out of that discussion is we had a basic disagreement about whether or not this needed to be a public meeting.”
Roane’s lawsuit is seeking a declaratory judgment that the county violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by not broadcasting the vote. The suit does not argue that the executive session should have been broadcast.
“If the BOCC is going to prohibit in-person attendance at its meetings, Mr. Roane believes (Colorado law) compelled the BOCC, at a minimum, to live broadcast the entirety of its meeting on October 20, 2020 (excepting the executive session),” the suit said.
Roane is seeking an unspecified amount in costs, expenses and attorney fees and other awards as “the Court deems just and equitable,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 28 in Pitkin County District Court.
County Manager Jon Peacock said the county’s failure to broadcast the portion of the meeting was not deliberate.
“Obviously we try to do these things correctly,” he said. “If there’s a course of correction we need to take, we’ll figure that out.”
Roane said he didn’t happen upon Pitkin County’s alleged broadcast lapse himself, but was pointed there by a Pitkin County resident. The resident, not wanting their name to be public, retained Roane to represent himself as plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Roane specializes in public records cases, and has successfully litigated against the Town Council in Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County government over access to records.
In May, Roane said he obtained three executive session recordings from the Aspen School District Board of Education after seeking their release under the Colorado Open Records Act. The recordings pertained to board discussions about finalists for the superintendent’s job.
The matter did not end up in court after the district released the recordings to Roane. It also provided the recordings to the media at the time of their release.
“Because of their preliminary and sensitive nature and the need to protect applicants whose jobs and careers could potentially be affected, these records would ordinarily be kept confidential and not subject to disclosure,” Board President Susan Marolt said in a statement provided to The Aspen Times on May 28. “Indeed, applicants participate in a recruitment process such as ours with this understanding.
“Unfortunately, we discovered during our review of the CORA request that we had made a few technical missteps in the way we actually convened the meetings. As a result, the Board reluctantly concluded that the best course was to release the recordings rather than engage in unconstructive and costly litigation. We could not in good conscience spend public money in this manner, particularly at a time of such great financial and social stress in our community. We have so much more important work to do.”
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