Open government put to the test

Local officials typically eager to comply with law

— Public officials in some Colorado counties it seems hold public records close to their vests like expert poker players.
But state law, like the last few rounds of a harrowing game of strip poker, requires them to reveal almost everything, regardless of whether the request is made by a newspaper reporter or just a concerned citizen.
A study conducted by The Associated Press and member newspapers of the Colorado Press Association tested the availability of public records in Colorado and found that, a full 33 percent of the time, legally obtainable records were not readily supplied by public officials.
In a state in which one-third of the public agencies failed to produce their records after newspaper reporters in all 63 counties in the state requested them, officials in Routt County were relatively willing to hand them over.
"We do everything we can to provide that service as user-friendly to the public as possible," said County Clerk and Recorder Kay Weinland.
Out of six public records requests submitted to agency officials by Steamboat Today reporters, all six were made available within 72 hours of the requests.
Those sample queries included requests for the records of the occupants of the jail, charges in connection with a crime within the past five days, the incidences of burglaries in the past six months, the City Council president's travel and entertainment expenses, the salary of the school superintendent, and the health records for a local restaurant.
Some Today reporters wrote of having difficulty obtaining the records in a timely manner and being asked repeatedly to identify their reasons for needing the records, but all six records were available within 72 hours.
Most records must be provided to a Colorado resident within 72 hours under a state law that reads, "all public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times." That 72-hour window can be extended in extenuating circumstances, said a lawyer from the Colorado Press Association. Not all records, such as police investigations and details of research, are open to the public, due to possible elements in the records that could be contrary to public interest.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that things that are not supposed to be available to the general public are withheld," said Rene Morrone, the clerk of the Routt County Court.
Oftentimes, a public official made the reporters fill out a public records request form, but other times, as in the case of the Routt County Department of Health, which keeps health records, the information was presented immediately.
Some public agencies request fees for public records, often for photocopies of the records.
The cost of obtaining copies of public records from the city has actually gone up since this summer. In the past, the first four sheets requested by an individual in a given year were free, after which each additional page cost 25 cents. As of Sept. 12, however, the cost of each page after the first four is $1. City Clerk Julie Jordan-Struble said the city needed to boost its cost-recovery system, which had been in place at the 25-cent rate since the 1980s.
"We're just recouping our costs," Jordan-Struble said.
Jordan-Struble said the cost of equipment and supplies to make the copies has risen since the 25-cent rate was instituted.
"We were trying to make a very fair and equitable system," she said.

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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