March 12, 2013
We like to think the sun never sets on Sunshine Week.
Sunshine Week is an observance by news organizations to raise awareness of the need for open government and the importance of a vigilant media.
When they are campaigning for office, politicians from both ends of the spectrum are fond of pledging to support transparency in government. You’d think that regardless of who wins, open government would be a constant.
The reality is that for the media — and especially newspapers — open government is a constant goal. Few citizens have the time or, in some cases, the financial resources it takes to contend with the powers that be over public records.
They rely on the media to do that job. Sometimes the records are easily obtained; sometimes the media must submit formal requests under the state and federal open records laws, and occasionally media outlets must go to court to force the release of records.
In January 2008, The Gazette sued Memorial Health System, which refused to release salary information for two of its highest-paid physicians. The city-owned hospital argued that because no tax dollars supported the enterprise, “there is nothing the public needs to know.”
A district court judge ruled in favor of The Gazette and, it could be argued, the citizens of Colorado Springs. The salary information was published and Memorial had to pay the Gazette’s attorney fees.
Last year in another Memorial-related case, The Gazette’s Daniel Chacon tried to get Colorado Springs officials to release the details of a severance agreement between Memorial and former Memorial CEO Dr. Larry McEvoy. The news of McEvoy’s $1 million package was the talk of the town, but when the Gazette pushed for a copy of the entire severance agreement, the city provided only a heavily redacted version.
In 2009, reporter Lance Benzel asked for records of Colorado Springs Police internal affairs investigations. The result was a wide-ranging story that was a bit embarrassing to the department but provided insight for readers about the level of professionalism in the agency and how it deals with certain kinds of cases.
In the mid-1980s, Colorado Springs Utilities refused to give the newspaper a copy of a long-term coal-hauling contract it had signed. The Gazette won a federal court case when a judge ruled that even though federal law allowed a railroad to keep such information secret, the city had no legal basis for the secrecy and that doing business with a public entity meant that for the railroad, disclosure was part of the cost of doing business.
In 2009, former Gazette reporter Pam Zubeck and former editor Jeff Thomas were jointly honored with the Jean Otto Friend of Freedom Award from the Colorado Freedom of Information Council, which cited the duo’s “unflinching and sustained commitment to open government in El Paso County.”
The Gazette has been pushing for open government recently and for a long time. But readers should know that not every request for records results in a blood-letting expose.
In January, the Gazette’s Dave Philipps used the Colorado Open Records Act to ask the Colorado Springs Police Department for information about how many times its officers had used tasers. It turns out that CSPD’s use of tasers has decreased somewhat in the past couple of years — no big news there, although the information added to the Gazette’s understanding of police operations and it might be part of a future story.
It’s true that sometimes, the media use open records laws to write stories some readers wish weren’t written. Sometimes there are readers who simply don’t care about a certain issue.
But letting the sun shine in isn’t just a good idea. It’s critical to having informed voters in a democracy.
Got a question? Contact Barry Noreen at 636-0363 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Hear him on KRDO 105.5 FM and 1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. Fridays.