In observance of Sunshine Week, The Durango Herald and the Cortez Journal tested local government agencies’ understanding of and commitment to their legal responsibility under the Colorado Open Records Act. Local residents should be pleased there were few problems and a generally improved climate of transparency.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information. As part of its annual observation, March 16-22 this year, reporters were sent to government offices they do not typically cover and instructed to ask for a copy of the employment contracts of certain agency heads. Included were fire chiefs, school superintendents, sheriffs and town managers. As part of the assignment, the reporters did not identify themselves.
The idea was to gauge as closely as possible what members of the public might experience in seeking information about their government. Under Colorado law, all of the requested documents are open records and are legally available to members of the public. Those asking for such records are not required to give their names or to explain why they want the records.
Under the Colorado Open Records Act, some information included in the requested documents may not be public. An example would be a personal address. Such details can be redacted, but the mere fact of their presence is not a legal reason to refuse to produce the record. Government officials should know all that. But most problems with open-records requests seem to be based on a simple lack of understanding and not malicious intent. The effect, however, is the same: a lack of information available to voters and taxpayers – people with a right to know how their government is acting.
That, in turn, fosters questions as to what is really going on. Just as police or guards are drawn to furtive gestures and hidden hands or faces – even when otherwise innocent – government secrecy breeds suspicion.
Local residents should be happy, however, to note most local agencies seem to be on board with both the letter and the spirit of the law. The offices queried by the Herald and Journal were ranked according to whether their responses were proper and prompt. Full compliance got a “sunny” score. Agencies making the requested documents available but were not initially aware of their responsibility under the law were ranked as “partly cloudy.” Those that failed or refused to comply were labeled “cloudy.”
Here is the good news: Of the 14 agencies visited, not one earned the “cloudy” designation, and only two were rated “partly cloudy.” The remaining dozen all scored “sunny.”
A simple three-tiered rating system affords little subtlety, however, and even among the “sunny” scores, there was a clear lack of understanding of the law. While most requests were promptly filled, in too many cases the reporters were asked their names, made to jump through minor bureaucratic hoops or otherwise quizzed about their requests.
In the “sunny” offices, a simple explanation typically sufficed. But in two other cases – the city of Durango and the town of Bayfield – the situation was more difficult. Both scored “partly cloudy.”
Bayfield would not release the town manager’s salary information – a public record – without the requester’s name. Asked for the city manager’s salary, the city of Durango grudgingly complied, but only after insisting releasing the information without a name was a one-time thing and would not be repeated.
Overall, this was a better showing than in similar exercises in the past. And that improvement should be applauded. But openness should not be difficult to understand or to practice. Better, yes, but not yet fully correct.