A woman in Colorado Springs needs to examine the permits issued to a contractor who moved here from the Western Slopes. She’s considering hiring him but wants to know the nature of work he has done. She calls a clerk at the county who says the man’s file is open for inspection and can be copied for a fee. Just come on down and look at the file.
“But I’m in Colorado Springs,” the woman says. “I’m five hours away. Can you just fax me records of three permits, or drop them in the mail?”
“No can do. Sorry,” says the clerk. “Our records are open to the public, but you have to come inspect them in person.”
It happens every day in Colorado. Some records custodians working for cities, townships, counties and other political entities refuse to mail, fax or email public records that, by law, should be available to anyone anywhere in the world. For someone who cannot afford the time and/or money to make a trip, the record isn’t open and accessible.
It’s just one of a litany of problems that have emerged in recent years to make a joke of the Colorado Open Records Act, which is supposed to protect the public’s access to almost all government records.
A bill making its way through the Legislature this week would, at the very least, eliminate the problem of governments that require in-person inspection. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, passed on a voice vote Monday. It requires one more vote before returning to the House, which approved a slightly different version of it.
High fees for the retrieval and copying of government records poses another giant obstacle that makes mockery of open records laws. Governments in Colorado are limited to charging 25 cents for each copy, but a growing number of public entities — including Colorado Springs city government — have started charging hefty hourly fees when a request requires any substantial amount of work on the part of a public employee.
A Republican amendment to the Kefalas bill would have limited the fees governments can charge for “research” and other tasks involved with providing records to the public, but Democrats didn’t allow it.
“We have to not let agencies themselves go and interpret what they deem reasonable,” said Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, in arguing for the amendment.
It’s a shame that she didn’t prevail. A fee of $75 an hour, or even more, means a lot of people simply don’t have access to records they need. We know of at least one Colorado sheriff’s department that tried to impose a fee of $3 million for records of a case that were, by law, open to the public.
This is not a left vs. right, Republican vs. Democrat dilemma. It’s a problem that pits Colorado governments against the people they are supposed to serve — the people who created governments and pay for them.
Yes, pass the Kefalas bill but go a lot farther toward making Colorado governments transparent. A government that creates obstacles for the public is not a government of, by and for the people.
We long for the day when all public documents are readily accessible for free on the Internet, with the exception of those we ask government to seal for appropriate reasons such as public safety and legitimate issues of privacy. The politician who can make that happen — eliminating fees and trips and all variety of bureaucratic burdens — will be seen as a genuine hero who is selflessly devoted to the collective good.