Open and shut: Candidates commit to strengthening state’s open records act

Monday, Aug. 20, 2018 1:36 AM

George Brauchler, the district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, recalls reading about a case in Texas in which public records were requested, when something caught his attention.

Reporters and others request records all the time, typically under a state freedom of information statute. In Colorado, that’s the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA.

Say, for example, the Herald hears that a city employee has been fired for embezzlement. We might send Durango’s attorney a request, referencing CORA and saying we want to see any documents that detail the theft. And then, suppose the city tells us that it will not release the information we requested because it is a confidential personnel matter.

In Colorado, if we feel the city records are being improperly withheld – because we are talking about the theft of the people’s money, which should trump the thief’s privacy – we face a steep hill of having to pay an attorney to sue the city, essentially. The steepness of the hill has ramifications far beyond our ability to get one story.

If records are easier to conceal, any government is at risk of flouting the will of the people, or of being a poor custodian of their money.

In Texas, under its state public information act, as in some other states, if an agency wants to withhold information, it first would have to make a case for the denial to the state attorney general, who then issues a ruling. What this means is that the burden on the requester is lessened. If the people are diligent about watching government, there will be less wrongdoing and more transparency.

In July, Brauchler, who is the Republican running for Colorado attorney general, drafted an upgrade to CORA that would do with it something similar to the Texas system. This is catnip for journalists. They and others replied to Brauchler suggesting tweaks, which he was happy to entertain. If Brauchler wins his race, he is committed to trying to lead the Legislature this way, he told us, which would be a great thing.

We were also fortunate recently to have met with Brauchler’s Democratic opponent, Phil Weiser. There are at least two great candidates in this race. Both would bring impressive experience to the job. Neither is a firebrand, and that’s good because the state’s lawyer should not be extreme.

Weiser said that he is also committed to making government more transparent, which is good to hear – but so many politicians tell us that. We wanted to know whether he would support the process that Brauchler initiated.

“The direction is one I’m committed to,” Weiser said. We pushed. “We need transparency, we need the press,” he said. “I am committed to that. And when I am attorney general, I look forward to working with George to make this happen.”

So both candidates are committed to using the attorney general’s office to strengthen CORA. With a solid attorney general, that was all we could have hoped for, at least for now.

If the burden of seeking public records is lessened, all Coloradans should see the benefits, in the clearer workings of state governments and especially in the confidence that builds.

We may not be there yet, but in this instance, we have every reason to believe that we will be in the right hands.