As has been reported on numerous occasions in Boulder Weekly over the past 18 months, local governments have been using excessive research and retrieval fees to thwart access to public records that are necessary for proper government oversight.
In the city and county of Boulder for instance, it is not unheard of to be quoted estimates of $1,000 to $7,500 just to get copies of or even access to some public records.
But a bill signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper earlier this week could help to finally put an end to such abusive government tactics, tactics that are clearly in conflict with the intent of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA).
HB 14-1193, which will take effect on July 1, 2014, was sponsored by Rep. Joseph Salazar (D-Thornton) and Sen. John Kefalas (D- Fort Collins) and requires all municipal, county and state governments to cap research and retrieval fees for public records at $30 an hour. It also requires that the first hour of research and retrieval must be free to anyone. This free hour is important because many CORA requests involve electronic searches of email that shouldn’t require an employee more than a few minutes to complete and therefore such searches should be free to the public going forward. Previously, charges beyond staff ’s time for research and retrieval such as examination of all documents to be released by a city attorney were calculated into CORA estimates at rates as high as $275.00 an hour, often times with a one-hour minimum.
In a press release concerning the bill, Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said, “It’s hard enough for Colorado citizens to stay informed about what our government is doing, and hefty fees threaten to make citizens and journalists stop asking questions. No longer can government use inconsistent and hefty fees to deter public scrutiny. In addition to noting that this was the right thing to do, we are also pleased that people from all ends of the spectrum got behind access and transparency to make this CORA reform happen.”
The bill was supported by The Independence Institute, American Civil Liberties Union, Colorado Common Cause, the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
In many — if not most — jurisdictions, Toro’s optimistic statement will likely prove an accurate assessment, but not everywhere to be sure. One would think that this new bill, coupled with Boulder’s enlightened city charter requirement that time spent on research and retrieval in response to public records requests be documented accurately and itemized, would end the city’s ability to restrict citizen and media access to public records. But that has not been guaranteed by the passage of HB 14-1193.
As reported previously in BW (see links at the end of this article), Boulder officials have been prone to making very high monetary estimates for research and retrieval and then charging exactly the estimated price without providing any proof of who spent how much time doing what. Even when such a breakdown of time spent has been specifically requested by BW in accordance with the city charter, no such breakdown has ever been provided.
Therefore, in Boulder and other locations in which governments have shown a propensity to roadblock open records laws, the new bill may still be rendered impotent. It’s only when elected city and county officials hold public employees accountable for providing accurate time reports for research and retrieval that actual change can occur. The bill is a good start, but it won’t stop dishonest municipalities from fabricating ridiculous charges byway of fraudulent overestimates of the time needed to produce records.
For additional BW stories on Boulder’s CORA problems go to: http:// tinyurl.com/as5vn2o, http://tinyurl.com/ ky5k8ue, http://tinyurl.com/ccf3tbl.