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.
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.
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.
Emails of public officials are open for inspection under the Colorado Open Records Act, depending on their content. Such messages can reveal important insights into how government decisions are made, but using CORA to obtain emails can be a frustrating and sometimes futile exercise because records-retention policies tend to be vague and discretionary.
Whether emails are retained by governments in Colorado is “really sort of an honor system thing,” State Archivist George Orlowski told us. “The senders and recipients of emails have to decide whether there’s something important that needs to be preserved.”
If we don’t take steps to start requiring logical, smart, and efficient archiving methods of government electronic data soon, the next time the citizens of Colorado are victims of government negligence or incompetence, as happened in Flint, Mich., we may have more than government to blame.
As our friends at the Sunlight Foundation recently wrote, “Our legally-protected access to public email records – the most voluminous source of official written records – is failing.” That’s true here in Colorado.