Open government in Colorado gets a win

Back in the fall of 2015, Colorado received an “F” for public access to information from a group that scores state governments on a range of metrics to gauge their overall transparency and accountability.

Public access to information was the worst scoring category for Colorado, which received a D+ overall, according to The Center for Public Integrity, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Washington, D.C.,

But lawmakers passed two bills this past legislative session that directly addressed two deficiencies noted in Colorado’s scorecard.

There’s still a long way to go. For example, the law provides no guidance on the use of text messages and private email accounts by public officials, which present an ongoing threat to transparency. But changing laws is hard and the Legislature bore down and tackled one important issue with Senate Bill 17-040 — known as Public Access to Government Files.

With Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature Thursday, the new law makes it easier for Colorado residents to obtain public records, like spreadsheets and databases, in a digital format if they’re kept that way.

With so much information stored electronically, a change was needed to remove an obstacle to access. Before, information kept digitally in a spreadsheet could be printed out, denying requesters a chance to easily sort and aggregate data. The information was available, but not in a useful way.

It took more than two years for lawmakers and stakeholders to forge a measure that balanced the public’s right to know with privacy and security concerns and costs. In the end, the bill affirmed the cornerstone of open government — that public records belong to the people and that government has a responsibility to ensure proper access.

Lawmakers addressed another shortcoming. There’s no formal appeals process outside the court system for someone denied a public record. Some requesters simply give up rather than face the expense and intimidation of suing for access.

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has studied the problem and found that at least 26 other states offer some sort of alternative dispute-resolution process.

House Bill 17-1177 doesn’t establish an alternative process, but it does require a “cooling-off period” when disputes reach an impasse, during which records custodians must speak to the requester in person or by phone in an attempt to resolve the matter. Facilitating a conversation is better than telling someone to go find a good lawyer.

Lawmakers should feel good about finding compromises on these issues, but they shouldn’t feel satisfied. More work is needed to get Colorado to a passing grade on transparency and accountability.


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