By Elyse Stefaniak
Colorado Press Association
The newspaper industry in Colorado fended off an attempt to reduce government transparency with regard to public legal notices and expanded access to distant public records, but still didn’t accomplish everything it wanted from the recently concluded session of the Colorado Legislature. The Colorado Press Association is able to look back on this session as an overall success, but with the close of each session comes the daunting task of preparing for the next.
“Overall, I think anytime we can collaborate with government and business entities to find workable solutions to issues that impact all of us, we’ve done something positive,” said CPA Executive Director Samantha Johnston. “I’m especially proud of the work so many people did to ensure the passage of HB 1041, which makes access to government records less cumbersome and, in doing so, makes government more transparent.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed HB 1041 into law earlier this year. Before the session, the bill concept was developed in a task force convened by CPA lobbyist Greg Romberg. The task force was made up of government officials of differing views, nonprofits and the CPA. The bill requires that records custodians make records available to requesters without the requester picking up the records in person. The custodian is able to send the records to requesters via mail, email or fax, which expands the availability of these records to the public.
CPA defeated attempts to post legal notice advertising and marijuana license applications on government websites rather than in newspapers by defeating House Bill 1064. This bill would have taken newspapers out of the equation in regard to legal notice advertising, only to be overtaken by counties’ websites. The bill also would have amended House Bill 1317 which would have allowed local governments to bypass newspapers to advertise hearings on marijuana license applications on their websites. Proponents of the bill believed website usage would spare taxpayers the expense of paying for newspaper ads. However, newspapers stood to lose significant ground with regard to public notification if this bill passed.
“I’ve always said that the revenue associated with public notices is an issue. But it’s not the only issue and it’s not the biggest issue. Providing the public with access to information that impacts their daily lives is paramount. Newspapers provide third-party verification and a tried-and-true process through which the public is notified of important happenings in their communities,” Johnston said. “We’re never going to advocate that public notices, which appear on the websites of community newspapers and in aggregate on a statewide site, be instead placed on thousands of websites statewide that taxpayers must navigate to find the information they seek.”
CPA opposed HB 1014, which would have repealed the statute making theft of a free newspaper a crime. The bill did not pass in its original form and, instead, newspaper theft is addressed under a different title and section of criminal code.
Romberg fought to ensure government transparency by successfully challenging a number of proposals. One such bill is House Bill 1112, which would have exempted government-owned security camera footage from the Open Records Act (except images usable as evidence during a crime). Proponents of the bill sought to prevent the currently public footage from abuse at the hands of registered sex offenders or restraining order recipients. The bill, which was postponed indefinitely by the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to reappear next year in a different form.
“The CPA is certainly not opposed to discussing the exemption of certain camera images if there is a legitimate reason to do so, but we are always going to be opposed to blanket bills that make government less transparent or limit citizens’ access to records they are entitled to request,” Johnston said. “I look forward to discussions about this over the summer.”
Romberg expressed concern over the growing trend among lawmakers to embrace sealing public records. To respond, members of the CPA Legislative Committee met with House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver to express this worry. Speaker Ferrandino agreed to meet with CPA representatives between sessions to discuss the issue in detail and possible alternatives in the future. However, there is no denying the past. House Bill 1156 gained significant popularity this session. It allows offenders of low-level drug crimes to petition to automatically seal records after completing a diversion program, and the court has no discretion.
“This will be very problematic going forward,” Romberg said.
While jammed dockets and offender’s future job applications may benefit, CPA and others in opposition believe that sealing records allows the offender to sidestep consequences. Furthermore, future employers will inevitably have access to internet sources reporting on their arrest which will most likely put the applicant in even rougher water.
With this loss in mind, the CPA team is already preparing for next year’s session by reconvening and expanding the same task force that developed House Bill 1041. The team plans to focus on reducing and maintaining the fees associated with obtaining records.
Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Do you appreciate the information and resources provided by CFOIC? Please consider making a tax-deductible donation.