"Freedom of information" long has been considered the province of journalists who spend their working hours digging through government records.
That is true, but private citizens need to realize their own right to government documents goes exactly, and only, as far as that of reporters. Individuals are entitled to the very same access. If a reporter cannot obtain a document or attend a meeting, neither can John Doe, constituent - and vice versa.
One important difference is reporters often are better at digging out information. They have more experience at knowing where to look and whom to ask. They may have better contacts (although in local governments the size of those in Southwest Colorado, nearly everyone has contacts). They also may have attorneys who can advise them on what the law considers a public record.
And they may be paid to go the courthouse or city hall or some other government office during business hours. Not everyone can do that. Their work schedules may interfere. They may be homebound, stationed overseas, unwilling to reveal why they want access to information, or any of a variety of other reasons that may sound suspicious but do not bear on their right to information. For them, online availability of records is a boon.
According to a study sponsored by several news organizations, Colorado ranks sixth nationally in availability of public records free on the Internet. The Sunshine Week 2009 survey checked 20 categories of public records nationwide. Of those 20, 15 were available free on the Internet in Colorado:•Audit reports.
•Bridge inspection and safety reports. A list of poor bridges by county is available on the Colorado Department of Transportation Web site. Detailed reports are available on request from the department.
•Child care center inspection reports.
•Database of expenditures.
•Department of Transportation projects and contracts.
•Disciplinary actions against attorneys.
•Disciplinary actions against medical physicians.
•Hospital inspection reports.
•Nursing home inspection reports.
•Personal financial disclosure reports.
•Political campaign contributions and expenses.
•Statewide school test data.
Death certificates were available online for a fee. Not available online were a comprehensive list of trade names (individual trade names are searchable), gas pump overcharge records, school bus inspections, (which are kept by districts rather than on a statewide basis) and school inspection/safety records. All are public records. All may be available to someone who can figure out which agency is the custodian of that record and can make a visit in person.
Obviously, that is a problem for a Durango resident who wants access to a record kept in Denver. Overall, though, Colorado is doing a fair job of making public information available to the public. That is important because government agencies are working on behalf of constituents.
Some officials and taxpayers might argue that certain information should not be public record. That can be argued in the Legislature and in the courts, but records deemed public cannot be arbitrarily withheld. In some cases, specific kinds of information must be deleted before they are released, but public records still must be released. That is the law. Making such records available online represents considerable progress in fulfilling a fundamental right: the right to information about what one's government is doing. Colorado should expand and improve on its already good record.