One of the most basic values of our democracy is that the people on whose behalf, and by whose charge, the government acts have the right to know what it is doing.
The rights of the public to scrutinize the records and attend the meetings of public bodies are firmly ensconced in state statutes.
Coloradans value those rights, and through many years of persistent hard work by journalists, they have come to expect transparency from their government. The state’s citizens can judge their government based on true records of its actions, not on the presumption that it is, or is not, doing its job appropriately.
Now, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, which investigates allegations of ethical misconduct involving public officials, is writing its own rules of access to public records to exclude some of the protections of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), to which the commission says it is not subject.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Council, on behalf of the public, has cried foul.
The current dispute centers on whether an agency created by a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution is a state agency governed by the Open Records Act. The much larger public concern, though, is protecting Coloradans from a governmental agency’s impulse to be secretive.
CORA is a time-tested bipartisan piece of legislation, hammered out through careful consideration and diverse testimony, and it serves Coloradans well. If the IEC believes it does not provide sufficient safeguards for parties to ethical investigations, the IEC can go before the legislature to ask that CORA be updated. Those proposed updates would be researched and debated vigorously, and “the unique nature of the records and operations” of the ethics commission – the factors the commission has cited in needing rules that deviate from CORA – would be considered by elected lawmakers who are very aware of the benefits and risks of public disclosure.
The Colorado Legislature, acting on behalf of the citizens of the state, would decide whether CORA should be amended.
Public bodies don’t get to decide what they want to keep secret, or how long they can delay releasing information. If IEC Executive Director Dino Ioannides, the commission’s only employee, cannot fulfill records requests in a timely manner, the office is not adequately staffed according to the standards of the legislature and the public.
As the Colorado Press Association and Colorado Broadcasters Association wrote in a letter to Ioannides, “It seems particularly offensive, and ironic, that an entity established to address ethical issues in state government, and thereby foster greater public trust in governmental institutions, should be subject to less public access than other governmental entities in Colorado.”
We join in urging the IEC to withdraw its proposed rules and abide by the Colorado Open Record Act.
We also urge the state’s voters to reaffirm their demands for transparency. Open government has long been an ethical standard in Colorado.
It is a right too precious to surrender.