Commentary: It’s time to bring Colorado’s open-records act into the 21st century

This column first appeared on the website of The Denver Post. It is reprinted here with The Denver Post’s permission.

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

For half a century, public records laws have been indispensable tools for disproving “alternative facts” and getting to the truth about government spending, activities and decision making.

But in our state, the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) is showing its age, especially regarding access to the myriad records maintained in spreadsheets and databases by state agencies, cities, counties and other taxpayer-funded entities covered by the law.

The problem isn’t that CORA, enacted in 1969, still references dated technologies such as “microfiche,” “microfilm” and “on-line bulletin boards.” It’s that the statute only vaguely implies that the public is entitled to request copies of digitized government records in useful formats that allow for analysis of the information.

SB 17-040, sponsored by a bipartisan group of state legislators, would bring CORA into the 21st century by clarifying that right.

With some exceptions, the bill requires that public records stored as structured data – an Excel spreadsheet, for example – be provided to the public, if requested, in a similar format. If public records such as emails are kept in some other searchable format, they must be provided in a searchable format.

This means a government entity could no longer get away with printing out hundreds of pages of records from a database and claim to have fulfilled its obligations under CORA. No longer could a government in Colorado give you a PDF when you ask for records kept in a spreadsheet. If the spreadsheet contains confidential information exempt from disclosure under the law, the records custodian would be obligated to remove that field and release the public portions.

If you work with databases, you understand why format matters. If you don’t, here’s why you should care about the way government entities release digitized information to the public.

Government databases contain all kinds of information about how your tax dollars are spent and how policies are made and implemented. Perhaps the city budget interests you. Or the salaries of school district employees. Maybe you’d like to examine building permits or air quality data.

When governments make it difficult for you to sort and aggregate public information, they control the narrative. What if you wanted to scrutinize the data in ways the government hasn’t – or doesn’t want you to know about?

The Fort Collins Coloradoan experienced this frustration when it sought to analyze salary trends for employees of Colorado State University. Although the information is kept in a database, CSU officials referred the newspaper to 145 printed pages on file in the university’s library. To conduct its analysis, the Coloradoan had to photograph each page and recreate the database. The process took months.

Aurora’s open-records policy bluntly states the city’s intention to control the release of public information: “The City will choose the format in which to provide the public documents, and will provide the responsive information in a reasonably accessible form which does not alter the content of the information. The standard practice is to provide hard copies.”

“The main concern is the manipulation of data,” Nancy Rodgers, an assistant city attorney in Aurora, told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “When the record leaves the city of Aurora, it’s in a format where the city can hope that it won’t be manipulated.”

It shouldn’t be difficult for journalists and interested members of the public to get and explore public records. After all, public money pays for the creation and maintenance of these databases, and the information belongs to the public.

SB 17-040, set to be heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday, is the second recent attempt to update CORA for the digital age. After last year’s effort failed in the same committee, the Secretary of State’s office agreed to host a working group to address concerns about protecting confidential information and not overburdening records custodians, particularly those in smaller jurisdictions.

This year’s proposal is a compromise worked out by negotiators representing governments, citizens’ groups and news organizations. It is the product of months of talks involving both records custodians and records requesters – as well as people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Government in Colorado should be open and accountable. Modernizing our open-records law will help.

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.

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