Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Fort Collins Coloradoan on Nov. 5, 2015. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and The Coloradoan.
By Steven D. Zansberg
The recent recall of three members of the Jefferson County School Board by an overwhelming majority of voters demonstrates that Coloradans do not abide by governmental officials’ shirking the public’s right to know how public business is conducted and how taxpayer funds are expended.
That message appears to be lost by the administration at Colorado State University, which has repeatedly thwarted the public’s ability to monitor the operations of northern Colorado’s largest public employer and a state- and federally-funded institution of higher learning.
Notwithstanding CSU President Tony Frank’s declaration, back in early May, that his administration was committed to shining light on the salary equity of university professors based on gender, to date the administration has taken a hard-line position and has steadfastly refused to make available to The Coloradoan a database of employee salaries in the same manner in which CSU makes, maintains, and keeps those records.
Instead, CSU’s General Counsel has opined that the university has no obligation to produce that database in a readily searchable and manipulable format (the same manner in which the university maintains this record) because it has printed out that information on some 145 pages and nearly 5,000 employees available to the public at the Morgan Library.
Thus, the university maintains, the citizens are fully able to scan in all of those pages, covert the contents to text and then clean up all of the inevitable scanning errors — in other words, to devote hundreds of person-hours simply to recreate the very same database that the university could provide on a thumb-drive after expending under five minutes of staff time.
The university maintains that it is not obligated under current law to provide access to the electronic database, because it makes the paper records available to the public, thus the record is not “maintained” only in miniaturized form. Even if this position were technically legally correct — a position with which I disagree but I cannot in good conscience advise The Coloradoan to expend thousands of dollars litigating the issue — nothing in the law prohibits the university from providing the database to the public as The Coloradoan has repeatedly asked it to do.
That the university has adamantly refused to do so speaks volumes about its commitment to public transparency, or rather, the lack thereof.
Nor has CSU provided any reason why it will not provide access to the database record, leaving the public with good reason to believe that the university’s only objective is to make more difficult an independent appraisal of pay equity.
More than two centuries ago, our founding fathers established a new government, declaring the Colonies’ independence from the tyrannical reign of King George III. In that now-hallowed Declaration, among the king’s 27 egregious transgressions that justified establishing a new nation was that he had convened meetings of legislative bodies in places “distant from the repository of their public Records,” to coerce their compliance with his will.
In other words, making it difficult for the People (in America, the true “governors”) to access their public records is a form of tyranny.
If Dr. Frank and his General Counsel’s office are students of history — both of our founding fathers and of more recent events in Jefferson County — they would be wise to mend their ways.
Steven Zansberg is a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz.
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