The Colorado General Assembly recently sent a bill to the governor’s desk that is supposed to lower the hourly fees a government can charge a resident or a journalist for researching and gathering open records. House Bill 1193 has good intentions, and may work as intended more often than not.
Politically, of course, it’s also a good bill for lawmakers to get behind as efforts to increase governmental transparency cut sharply across partisan lines. Both parties, generally speaking, do want citizens to have more access to government records.
However, while HB 1193 may give the appearance that the march for more and easier access to your government through open records is moving onward and upward, a spate of recent stories also shows that some areas of accessing records are in serious trouble.
Perhaps most troubling was a story by Channel 7’s John Ferrugia, who reported that Poudre School District employees purposefully destroyed emails that might later be requested via the Colorado Open Records Act. Not only did the employees destroy emails, they even considered creating codenames so some emails might go undetected by keyword searches.
Similarly disturbing was a recent vote — by secret ballot, no less — by the members of the Arvada City Council to elect a councilperson to a recently vacated seat. The secretive method behind the vote prompted an Arvada resident to file a lawsuit. Months later, a judge ruled the plaintiff did not have standing to bring the suit.
If an Arvada resident lacks standing to sue his own government for a seemingly clear-cut violation of the state’s open meetings laws, the possible legal ramifications mean no one at all has standing. Therefore, the open meetings laws would have no meaning at all.
These examples from Poudre and Arvada are the unfortunate kinds of stories that serve to broadly undermine public confidence in open records laws when access problems arise in other governments within the state later down the road.
For example, reporter Michael Sandoval — who writes for the news blog I run, CompleteColorado.com, recently published several stories that raised some red flags about important government business conducted in secret.
A member of the governor’s executive staff carried on conversations about EPA strategies in Colorado, but the conversations sometimes were conducted on the individual’s private email account.
Any request of those emails under the force of the Colorado Open Records Act law would have omitted the messages that didn’t take place on a government account. Regrettably, this approach just continues the consequences former Gov. Bill Ritter established as legal precedent when he began conducting his governmental business on his private cellphone. The Denver Post sued for phone records, but ultimately was denied because Ritter had used his personal cellphone.
Recently, an attorney asking for emails from the Colorado Governor’s Office learned the office has no concrete or enforceable policy for email message retention. In other words, an employee for the state’s chief executive can carry on a conversation about any government policy and delete the emails immediately, erasing any “paper trail.”
“Does any of this matter?” you might complain. “Do we really need to be sorting through our politicians’ emails looking for dirty laundry?”
If we presume our governments belong to us, the answer is unequivocally yes. Open records and meetings provide the basic tools for journalists to do beat work as well as investigative reporting. Open records provide guides for historians who look back on how citizens were governed in the past. Open records sometimes even provide the basis for a politician’s exoneration if accused of untoward dealings.
Colorado stands in the middle of the pack when it comes to transparency compared to other states. Other “models” in other governments certainly can provide useful roadmaps. Let’s do more than just hope Colorado and our local governments accidentally somehow become more transparent.
Let’s insist on it.