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Across state, contract query draws questions

Across the state, contract query draws questions

When The Durango Herald sought to test the public records policies of other counties around Colorado, a standard request for a copy of the county manager’s employment contract drew a range of responses.

Of more than a dozen public-records requests made by phone to various Colorado counties, three asked for the request to be made by email, another two wanted a form filled out and two emailed the document without requiring a written request. Two counties required payment to copy the public record. One county never responded to the inquiry and several other counties said their manager did not have an employment contract

Such contracts and employment agreements for the heads of government agencies are considered public records under Colorado’s Open Records Act.

Most counties contacted needed additional time to find the appropriate person to respond to the request, often transferring the requestor or taking a message and promising to call back. Many county staff members who answered the phone didn’t know whether the employment contract of the county’s top employee was a public record and had to check with the county attorney or human resources department before fulfilling the request.

A call to the El Paso County budget office, for example, was met with a wall of questions.

“Can I ask what this is regarding? Who are you with? What do you need? Could you explain it?” asked Deanna Ruschioni, with the county’s budget office.

A member of the county attorney’s office asked similar questions, and then said she needed to check with the county attorney to see if the document was a public record she could give out.

Most employees in the counties contacted asked for the requestor’s identity and the reason for the inquiry.

Unfamiliarity with public records procedures is more common than one might think, said Michael Morisy, co-founder of Muckrock, an online public records request service. Requestors are not required to identify themselves or provide reasons for seeking records.

“One thing we’ve really learned is how many government officials don’t realize how the law applies to them,” Morisy said. “It’s not uncommon to find government officials who have been in office for years and have never received a public records request.”

George Sugars, Fremont county manager, seemed to be one of those officials.

“Is this for county use?” Sugars asked the requestor. “Of course salary is public information, but normally I don’t give that out. I guess I’m not sure at this point what good that would be. I’m not sure why you need it. I can tell you a few things in it. I guess I’ve never been asked that before. I’d hate to have my contract out there in the world. I don’t know what you would use it for.”

In the end, Sugars took the requestor’s email address and sent his employment contract.

Only two counties did not ask for the requestor’s name. One county, Summit County, declined to email the contract, citing security and confidentiality concerns. The administrative assistant did agree to mail the contract after the requestor mailed her $2.46 to cover the cost of copies and postage.

A new law passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor March 8 requires records custodians to fax, email or mail public records if the requestor is unwilling or unable to pick up the records in person.

It took two phone calls and three voicemails left over the span of a week to get an answer from Garfield County. El Paso County never responded to the request despite three phone calls made to different departments.

Responding to open-records requests increasingly gets moved to the bottom of the priority list within local governments, which can lead to slow response times, Morisy said.

“Especially now that budgets are tightened up all around, unfortunately, public-records compliance doesn’t win elections,” Morisy said. “It’s easy for government officials to deprioritize training and enforcement of open records laws.”

The trend is only expected to grow as the number of reporters who tend to make those requests continues to shrink, he said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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