Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

GUEST COLUMN: Taking time to educate the public about importance of open government

Jeffrey A. Roberts Published: March 18, 2014 0

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

Louis Brandeis wrote these words a century ago, before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, to note the power of publicity as a cure for "social and industrial diseases" like the inequities fostered by the corporate monopolies of his time.

Today all states have "sunshine laws," a catch-all term for statutes requiring openness in government - rules meant to guarantee access to public records and proceedings. Justice Brandeis would probably approve: Shed light on the workings of government and society is better off.

Transparency is now such a popular concept, it's become something of a buzzword. Mayors, school boards, city councils, the president - public officials at every level tout their transparency initiatives. Indeed, the Internet has made it possible for governments to easily share important information - budgets, agendas, minutes, databases - like never before.

It's a trend worth applauding. But not every bit of information regarded by the law as a public record is free of charge and easy to download. Far from it. And elected officials in some communities still conduct some public business behind closed doors.

That's why news and civic organizations nationwide are taking time this week - Sunshine Week - to educate the public about the importance of open government. And that's why, about a year ago, a little-known, 27-year-old council of Coloradans decided to greatly expand its mission. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) is a nonpartisan alliance of media outlets, civic groups, First Amendment lawyers and individuals founded in 1987 by Jean Otto, a long-time Rocky Mountain News editor.

With a tiny budget, CFOIC volunteers mostly sponsored community forums, presented awards and filed court briefs in support of greater government transparency. Its most notable accomplishment was not a small one, helping to persuade the state judiciary to put court records online.

But similar nonprofits in other states were doing much more - putting on seminars, developing online resources, reporting on issues and legislation, answering questions from citizens and journalists and playing the role of watchdog. Colorado needed the CFOIC to be more like them.

Why? The CFOIC is rooted in the belief that a healthy democracy depends on the free flow of information. To be engaged and to hold their elected officials accountable, citizens need to know what's going on in their communities. They have a right to know.

But it's a right that shouldn't be taken for granted. The State Integrity project recently gave Colorado an "F" for public access to information. Coloradans have no way to administratively appeal denials of access. Colorado has no agency monitoring governments for possible violations of access-to-information laws.

If a Coloradan is denied access, the only recourse is to sue. This is frustrating for residents like Melody, who was denied information on how much employees of her local fire district are paid in salary and overtime. And Bill, who spent nearly $1,500 trying to show that his county commission was improperly meeting in secret. And Ruth, a state college professor who was billed $3,700 after requesting records from her employer.

The media play a vital role in using open-government laws to expose corruption, life-threatening problems or the need for policy reforms. But newsroom staffs have shrunk dramatically (or have disappeared entirely) in recent years, as have media budgets to wage legal battles against violations of freedom-of-information statutes.

The CFOIC hopes to shore up the media's efforts in defense of access to information by providing Colorado journalists - and all residents - with a resource and partner. Among our initiatives: seminars and an FOI hotline supported by the state's leading media-law attorneys.

Visit our website at www.colorado foic.org for resources, news and original reporting on open-government issues and legislation.

To keep up with new entries, "like" our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter (@CoFOIC) or sign up for our emailed newsletter. We welcome new members and, of course, donations (we're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit).

You may already belong to a civic group that belongs to the CFOIC. Our growing membership includes (in addition to media organizations) the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the Colorado Bar Association, Colorado Common Cause, Colorado Ethics Watch, the Independence Institute, the League of Women Voters of Colorado and the Society of Professional Journalists. Members represent varied interests and political persuasions but share a common passion for government transparency.

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Jeffrey A. Roberts, a former reporter and editor at The Denver Post, is executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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