- University of Denver
- Jeff Roberts
Every year, reporters observe Sunshine Week (it's March 12-18 this year) by celebrating the efforts of those in our industry who shed light on the dark corners of government, and by pushing for greater transparency.
In that spirit, the Independent spoke with Jeff Roberts, the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, about the state of Colorado's two public records laws: the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act (CCJRA), which covers law enforcement records, and the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), which covers other government documents.
In short, Roberts says Colorado could do better. In November 2015, Colorado was given an "F" for public access to information by the Center for Public Integrity. That report cited two main issues. First, no agency in the state monitors how well our transparency laws work, and second, if a public document is denied, the requester can't appeal the denial — they have to sue.
The report also called out Colorado for two other major issues: The fact that law enforcement officials can easily deny CCJRA requests for documents by saying releasing them wouldn't be "in the public interest," and the exemption for the state's judicial branch from CORA.
Roberts cites yet another problem: "An issue that happens to some people that request public records in Colorado, is they'll request public records that are kept in a spreadsheet or a database and they'll get a printout instead," he says, "or they'll get a very big PDF, and it makes analysis of that data very difficult. And we think that public records ought to be easy for the public to analyze."
Roberts says the good news is that there are a couple bills in the state legislature aimed at patching up such holes. House Bill 1177, for instance, would permit mediation after a record is denied — which seems like a good start to an appeals process, though Roberts says that, as currently written, the bill might not actually achieve a fairer process.
Senate Bill 40, meanwhile, would require that governments release records in their original format, potentially fixing that digital problem Roberts mentioned. But legislators have tacked more CORA exemptions on to the bill, meaning that the government would be able to keep even more records secret should it pass in its current form.
So how much information are journalists and others currently able to get their hands on? It's a mixed bag. CORA does allow some records, including personnel records, to be kept secret. But Roberts notes that the courts have interpreted that very narrowly. For instance, the courts recently decided that a school district must release the driving records of school bus drivers.
Many law enforcement records, on the other hand, can easily be denied under CCJRA. Roberts cites one case in which a grieving mother whose son died bizarrely — he stabbed himself with a letter opener while being tased by police in Olathe — was denied records about his death even after the police officer was cleared and the case was closed. Roberts was eventually able to get her records, though the town never explained why they thought it was "in the public interest" to keep them from her.
Asked why transparency laws are worth protecting, Roberts says that at a recent conference, Ralph Nader, who helped pass the federal public records law, the Freedom of Information Act, half a century ago, called these laws "tools of democracy." That seems like an apt description to Roberts, who notes that the founding fathers protected the press for a reason.
"We talk so much these days about what is the truth," he says, "... but if you can get records and you can get documents, you can have a better idea what the truth might actually be."
— J. Adrian Stanley