Senate should pass SB40

As we observe Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information, there’s some good news coming out of Denver.

Senate Bill 40, which seeks to modernize the Colorado Open Records Act, passed out of the state Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday and is expected to be debated by the full Senate soon.

While this is not a perfect bill, we remain hopeful that the legislative process will preserve its original intent and fix some problematic amendments. The Senate deliberations are the first step.

The bill is predicated on an idea that every member of the Senate should champion: that the records of government belong to the people and the public deserves meaningful access to them to be able to fully understand the operations of government.

Technological changes have outstripped the law. Lacking specific legislative direction, some government entities don’t allow public access to records kept in digital formats. As the Colorado Press Association explains: “Some governments force people who request records to look at them on paper, while others make records available electronically, only in PDF or other formats that make it difficult for the public to analyze the records and understand what they say.”

As introduced, SB40 generally required that public records stored as “structured data” — a spreadsheet, for example — be provided to the public, if requested, in a similar format. Unfortunately, a host of amendments tacked on to the bill when it was heard at the committee level have made the bill more complicated than that. Some amendments could let government withhold some records now available for public inspection.

Another would make Colorado’s judicial branch subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. While we support the concept, the fear is that this amendment acts as a “poison pill” rider, opening a can of worms that overwhelms the simple and relevant point of the original bill.

Nevertheless, SB40 is the bill before the Senate and we hope that through debating its merits, lawmakers will see that some of the sweeping amendments detract from a simple solution to a growing problem.

The bill represents a good-faith effort to address the shortcomings of a similar bill introduced last year. A working group convened by Secretary of State Wayne Williams and made up of a wide variety of records custodians and records requesters addressed concerns about protecting confidential information and not overburdening records custodians, particularly those in smaller jurisdictions.

This common-sense update to Colorado’s open records law deserves to be approved — so long as it doesn’t change what records are and aren’t subject to disclosure.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, attempted to strengthen CORA, not undermine it. That should be the guiding principle as senators consider tackling the other issues raised by amendments.

Hopefully, they’ll remember the key issue at stake — the public is entitled to view the records of government in ways that allow them to know and understand what their governments are doing.


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