Sunshine Week recognizes the Open Government laws that every state has and that the federal government has with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It’s an initiative from news organizations all around the country and it is celebrated during this week in March because it coincides with the birthday of James Madison, the Founding Father who articulated the need for an informed electorate for democracy to function properly.
The Center for Public Integrity recently published their latest report on access to government records. They gave Colorado an F grade. Jeffrey A. Roberts, Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition says that failing grade is due to several factors. “Part of the reason that Colorado got an F is that we don’t have any kind of central agency that oversees the public records and open meetings laws and so if someone feels that they’ve been improperly denied a record that is supposed to be public or they’re denied access to a school board executive session, where they’ve closed the door and they feel like they did that improperly. There’s really no recourse in Colorado except for someone going to court and that can be an expensive thing. If you win you can get your attorney’s fees and court costs recovered, but that’s not a guarantee, and it can be an intimidating thing because you’re going up against a government attorney.”
Roberts points to alternative processes that exist in other states, like having a mediator or an alternate agency that takes the complaints “it doesn’t always work that well in these other states, but it’s another way of going about it aside from just having to give up or file a lawsuit.”
In a recent post on Sunshine Week, Roberts writes about Rocky Mountain PBS investigative reporter Katie Wilcox who requested five years of police records from six cities for a series on race she was working on. Wilcox had different experiences depending on the city.
Roberts writes that “Grand Junction provided information from its field interviews at no charge. Pueblo billed Wilcox $20, Colorado Springs asked for $88 and Fort Collins quoted her $60. Denver doesn’t keep the data by race.
Aurora’s price? $290.85. And that’s for 1,151 printed pages from a database. Not an Excel spreadsheet like Wilcox received from other cities. If she wants to inspect all 22,309 reports, she’ll have to pay the city $111,510.40 to cover the cost of copies and the redaction of any confidential information.”
Roberts says that Wilcox had to essentially recreate the data base from those pages and he adds that while reporters like Wilcox can do this “many people in the public if they wanted to try and do the same thing or analyze records in this way,they may not know how to do this and it’s very difficult.”
Earlier this year, Sen. John Kefalas a Democrat from Fort Collins, introduced legislation that would have required that public records kept in database formats be available to the public in similar formats. SB 16-037 died on a 3-2 vote in a Senate committee.