On May 29, the Independent, the Gazette, KOAA, KKTV and Fox21 — along with Denver TV stations KDVR and KUSA-TV — scored a major victory when a district court judge ruled El Paso County erred by withholding public documents and ordered it to pay media outlets’ attorney fees.
Together, we spent close to $30,000 on this fight for transparency — a battle against the county’s taxpayer-funded lawyers, who were attempting to seal public records related to an embarrassing and tragic incident. Fourth Judicial District Judge Michael McHenry found that the county must now foot our bill. (If the county had just paid our legal fees after releasing those records, that bill would have stood at around $1,500. The county hasn’t said if it will appeal.)
All of this stemmed from former El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux’s refusal last year to release autopsy reports for Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick, killed in the line of duty, and suspect Manuel Zetina, gunned down by law enforcement. Bux noted Flick’s widow didn’t want the report released, and that the deaths were, at the time, an open investigation.
The law sets no such parameters. Autopsies — except in the rarest of instances — are public records, plain and simple. And it’s hard not to be skeptical about the reasons behind attempting to shield these particular reports (which Bux ultimately released on Sept. 7), given that police didn’t follow normal guidelines in their Feb. 5, 2018, attempted-arrest-turned-chaotic-shootout, as documented in our award-winning June 20, 2018, cover story by Pam Zubeck.
So, why did several media outlets — which normally compete against each other — come together to fight for a couple of autopsy reports? We all share a common belief that the public — you! — have a right to know what your government is up to. Under Bux (who has since retired, and was succeeded by Dr. Leon Kelly), the Coroner’s Office routinely denied access to autopsy reports, which the law says are public records. If we hadn’t fought for those records, the county government might have started withholding all or most autopsy reports, along with other public records.
What government wants to answer to the public if they don’t have to? And if the media don’t fight the county, who’s going to? Ask yourself: Do you have $30,000 to throw at a public records lawsuit?
For most folks, that’s a solid “no.” Hell, for the Independent, it’s a huge stretch. TV shows and movies might portray “The Media” as some flush institution, but the truth is, across the country, local media outlets are struggling financially. (See “Layoffs hit the Chieftain,” p. 14.) These cases are hard for any one local news organization to finance.
And that’s why our Colorado Springs Press Association is so important. The Indy and the Gazette were first to contact Denver First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg and agree to take this case on. But after we told our friends at the CSPA about it, our TV colleagues were quick to jump in and help share the cost. That’s how we won this fight: Together.
We at the Indy (and the CSPA) hope that local and state governments take notice that media outlets will cooperate to fight for the public’s right to know. And we hope that readers appreciate that despite unwarranted attacks on the media from high places, despite shrinking budgets and contracting newsrooms — your local media are still serving as a guard against governmental power. It’s our job.
— J. Adrian Stanley, news editor, and vice president of the Colorado Springs Press Association