Journalist sues Archuleta County commissioner over secret meeting and loses, but would “gladly do the same thing again”

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

Three years ago, Pagosa Springs journalist Bill Hudson sued the chairman of the Archuleta County Commission, seeking access to an audio recording of a meeting at which he believes the commission illegally conducted public business behind closed doors.

The lawsuit ended up costing Hudson nearly $1,500, but he says he would “gladly do the same thing again, given the opportunity.”

Why? Even though Hudson’s case was dismissed, and he wrote a settlement check to the county, he has good reasons to believe that he was right at all along.

“We need to put our government leaders on notice that they can’t just violate the Sunshine Law without any consequences,” Hudson says. “Unfortunately, embarrassing them isn’t always useful, but hopefully the commissioners in Archuleta County will think twice before they do this again.”

The county commission’s executive session on Sept. 1, 2010, the meeting challenged by Hudson, involved a proposed federally funded broadband project. An Archuleta County District Court judge initially found  that the closed-door meeting appeared to be improperly convened and conducted. But  the judge later dismissed Hudson’s lawsuit on a technicality, essentially ruling that he had requested the audio recording from the wrong person, County Commission Chairman Clifford Lucero rather than the county clerk.

The day after the dismissal, 19 months after Hudson had asked for the audio, County Attorney Todd Starr gave him a copy of the recording anyway. But Hudson also was ordered to pay the county $3,589.26, most of which supposedly covered the cost of Westlaw legal research done by the county attorney’s office.  Hudson’s lawyer argued that the legal research fee couldn’t possibly be that high because the county attorney’s office has a flat-rate monthly subscription to Westlaw. Nonetheless, Hudson agreed to settle for $1,000. He had already paid nearly $500 in filing fees.

“I could have appealed the case and risked paying $3,000 if the higher court sided with the district judge,” said Hudson, publisher of an online community magazine, PagosaDailyPost.com. “Since I already had a copy of the recording, I felt like it was pretty much done with after 2½ years, so I went ahead and settled.”

But Hudson’s friend and attorney, Matt Roane, wasn’t satisfied and filed a complaint about Starr, the county attorney, with the Colorado Supreme Court last March. Roane alleged  that Starr, representing Lucero in the case, had violated rules of professional conduct by misleading the Archuleta County District Court on the actual cost of his office’s legal research.  In June, the Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Counsel informed Roane that “This office has now entered into a confidential agreement with Mr. Starr that requires him to complete a specific ethics-related course. If Mr. Starr adheres to the terms and conditions of the agreement, this matter will be closed and dismissed. If he fails to do so, our office may take further action…”

“It’s pretty clear that the county attorney did something that violated ethics,” Hudson says. “We just don’t know how serious that was and what kind of course Attorney Starr was obligated to take.”

You can read Hudson’s seven-part series on his legal saga, “The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Suing Your County Government,” at PagosaDailyPost.com.

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