In recognition of Sunshine Week – a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information – reporters for The Durango Herald visited 12 government agencies to gauge their openness.
Most agencies ultimately complied with Colorado’s Open Records Act, but several weren’t immediately aware of their obligations or ran afoul of the law during the process.
One public-records custodian told our reporter to “get a life.”
Sunshine Week was observed March 13-19. It is not uncommon for media outlets to query a swath of public agencies during Sunshine Week and report their findings to readers.
For the Herald’s open-records audit, reporters set out Tuesday morning to inspect a copy of employment contracts for preselected agency heads, including town managers, fire chiefs, school superintendents and agency directors.
The contracts and employment agreements are considered public under Colorado’s Open Records Act, said Denver attorney Tom Kelley, a media lawyer whose clients include The Durango Herald.
Certain details in the agreements may not be public – such as a personal address – but those items can be redacted and are not an excuse to deny access to the document, he said.
For the Herald’s exercise, reporters did not identify themselves for two main reasons:
b The open-records law doesn’t require citizens to identify themselves when making requests.
b We didn’t want to be treated differently than the public.
Some agencies asked that the request be made in writing, which is permissible under the law. If the record is not readily accessible, a maximum of three days generally is seen as a reasonable time to fulfill a request.
Some agencies asked us to identify ourselves or complete forms before receiving the document. No Colorado court has yet determined whether a records custodian may properly withhold access to a public record because the requestor refuses to sign a form or otherwise disclose his or her identity.
Kelley said Colorado’s public-access laws compare favorably with most other states. But ensuring those responsible for public records know the law and are following it is important to put to the test.
“This project is very worthwhile because it creates a heightened awareness of both rights and responsibilities under public-access laws,” Kelley said.