EDITORIAL: Keep Colorado and local government open and honest

Half a spreadsheet with Colorado government records open to public scrutiny is far better than none.

State lawmakers are, finally, closer than ever to passing a measure that would modernize Colorado’s treasured open records laws, saving taxpayers money and saving time and money for those who want information from their state and local government that must be made available to them by law.

In short, it’s antiquated open-records laws leaping into the digital world. But there’s a problem.

Almost the entire state legislature agrees, publicly, that Colorado’s open records laws are an important part of the state’s transparency and good government. Having to produce records of who spent how much on what, who emailed whom, who said what during a public meeting, are all parts of keeping Colorado’s large and small governments honest and effective.

And legislators agree that open records laws only work when they’re realistic and practical. An open records law that allows a government endless months or years to produce payroll or expenditure records, or allows a government to stymie a request by charging huge fees is not an open records law at all. It’s a sham.

Colorado’s law, one of the first and, at the time, best, in the country, has slid into sham status because it doesn’t account for how records are now stored. Almost no government these days has records in manila folders stored in cabinets, yet current law doesn’t address the ease and savings in simply giving someone who requests expenditures a copy of the digital spreadsheet they’re stored in. Instead, some governments manually copy records to paper, spending hours doing it, and passing the costs along to the public, which is often newspapers acting as the watchdog for the public.

State lawmakers have long allowed local governments to charge the public for records retrieval. It’s a bad practice and fraught with trouble. The logic is that a nefarious reporter or citizen gadfly could tie up endless government resources by demanding frivolous and prolific records requests. The problem and reality is that some governments use the billing privilege as a punitive answer to records appeals and an effective impediment to oversight and transparency.

By streamlining how records must be delivered upon requests, Senate Bill 40 gives ammunition to those who want the courts to put a stop to that unethical practice. But the bigger problem involves the courts themselves. A last-minute state Senate amendment to the bill would for the first time bring unified open-records laws into the state’s justice system.

We strongly support legislation that would force state courts and district attorney offices to abide by the letter and spirit of open records laws. But not like this.  The state’s court system falls under separate laws that offer special sensitivity to the unique privacy issues of the judiciary. The wisdom of that is certainly debatable, but that debate right here, right now threatens the critical progress Senate Bill 40 at long last offers.

The state House should strike the amendment and create a separate bill addressing those judiciary open records concerns, which could most likely garner majority legislative support. Later. For now, that amendment threatens to scuttle a bill that is badly needed and critical to the work of the media and others in the public that keep Colorado’s government open and honest.

There’s no partisan issue in open government, and no reason to threaten a bill that would benefit everyone in Colorado. Don’t jeopardize this long overdue fix to the state’s open records laws. Strike the court amendment, pass the bill and keep government records open and accessible.