By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
Prompted by the recent financial troubles of a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, a state lawmaker plans 2016 legislation to open the records of all such agencies in Colorado that receive more than half their funds from public sources.
Sen. Irene Aguilar said Rocky Mountain Human Services and similar nonprofits should be covered by the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) so that local governments and the public can be confident that the limited amount of money available for programs to help vulnerable populations is spent appropriately.
Twenty community centered boards (CCBs) serve adults and children with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Colorado. Questions about Rocky Mountain Human Services, formerly known as Denver Options, were raised earlier this year when the Denver-based CCB reported unspecified budget problems, missed payments to service providers and cut ties with its highly paid founder.
Aguilar, a Denver Democrat, said Denver Councilwoman Debbie Ortega reached out to her about possible legislation after Ortega had trouble getting detailed information about RMHS’ finances. Denver voters in 2003 approved a property tax hike for RMHS, which took in about $13 million from Denver taxpayers last year, according to The Denver Post.
By requiring public disclosure of detailed CCB spending, “people could analyze the data and bring things to our attention that we may not know are happening,” said Aguilar, who has a daughter with developmental disabilities. “We can’t fix something if we don’t know there’s a problem.”
Audited financial reports posted on CCB websites only “conglomerate huge amounts of income and expenses into single categories, defeating any attempts by concerned citizens to track income and expenditures,” parent activist Denver Fox noted in a recent blog article.
“I want to know how much they’re spending on parties for their executive directors, all that kind of stuff,” Fox told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. The father of a 48-year-old son with developmental disabilities, Fox has been pushing for greater CCB transparency for nearly a decade.
“It’s a matter of trust,” he said. “If they’re not hiding anything, why aren’t they open and what is the problem with being open?”
Annie Davies, communications director for RMHS, said the agency wants to evaluate Aguilar’s proposal before commenting on it. RMHS made a similar statement about the possibility of CORA legislation in a recent FAQ, adding that the nonprofit has “already taken several steps to increase our communication and transparency.”
Josh Rael, executive director of the Alliance, also said he wants to see the bill before taking a position. He added that members of his association, which include the CCBs, “are committed to being responsible stewards of public funds and work hard to balance transparency with protecting the privacy of the people they serve.”
Rael said CCBs already have “significant transparency responsibilities” via their contracts with the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which is subject to CORA. He said any discussion of additional transparency requirements should include whether an “added administrative burden could negatively impact services for Coloradans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Aguilar’s proposal is narrower in scope than a 2010 bill that would have applied CORA to documents kept by private entities that receive public funds or perform governmental functions. That bill died after House and Senate conference committees could not agree on a final version.
The 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 13.
Note: The author was a parent representative on Denver Options’ board of directors in 2001-02.
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.