A split screen might be the best way to think about government transparency in Colorado in 2019. On one side is the ground-breaking new state law that opens records on completed police internal affairs investigations. On the other is the trend among law enforcement agencies in our state to encrypt 100 percent of their scanner transmissions.
Public Records Laws
A major battle plays out daily in Colorado as some of our elected and appointed officials – all of whom took a solemn oath to serve all Coloradans – do everything possible to frustrate disclosing information belonging to the people. These fights involve access to records concerning public policies created with taxpayer dollars.
Footage from police body-worn cameras clearly fits the definition of criminal justice records in one of Colorado’s freedom-of-information laws: All materials, including recordings, “made, maintained, or kept” by criminal justice agencies. But some district attorneys are relying on more than the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act to determine whether and when body camera video should be disclosed to the public.
A Colorado Springs school board circumvented the state’s transparency laws in hiring its superintendent, a parent alleges in a lawsuit that raises issues like those in another recent legal challenge that seeks the names and records of all finalists for the job of University of Colorado president.
A free and independent press is fundamental — it is essential — to American democracy at all levels. But knowing that is precisely why Coloradans must begin a conversation about alternative ways to fund local journalism — even ways that involve public dollars.
The state health department could dispose of a former high-ranking employee’s emails because the records retention schedule for state agencies gives officials the discretion to decide which emails are important enough to keep. The Colorado Open Records Act also doesn’t provide any meaningful guidance about the retention of public records.
Actual malice. Autopsy reports. The Columbine killers’ “basement tapes.” Stapleton Development Corp. records. The governor’s cellphone bills. The meetings and records of a county retirement board. Tom Kelley waged court battles over these issues and many more as an attorney for The Denver Post, other news organizations and the Colorado Press Association, steadfastly and expertly defending the public’s right to know and the journalist’s right to report.
Government transparency laws are designed to make sure the government gives you what it’s obligated to give you, even if those documents may be embarrassing or may get someone fired. Recently though, government agencies have been using a new tool to keep documents a secret. That tool is money.
When a government agency wants $5,850 to fulfill a request made under the Colorado Open Records Act, is it effectively denying access to those records?