Colorado Sunshine Laws keep government transparent
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY – Want to know whether your loud neighbor has a history of violence?
Or what about how many of your tax dollars local government officials spend on dinner during meetings – or on office supplies, salaries or legal counsel?
You could even find out what sorts of inventions have come out of your home town.
Sunshine Laws are intended to maintain government transparency through meetings and records. This week, media across the country aim to open dialogue about the importance of the freedom of information and open government.
The Summit Daily uses Colorado’s Sunshine Laws regularly to gather information for stories. One information request took nearly four years of an open records suit before it was filled.
The result came last summer: It was revealed that the Town of Breckenridge had settled a civil rights suit with an “involuntarily terminated” police officer for $80,000.
The Denver Post in a 2008 case sought to obtain access to Gov. Bill Ritter’s cell phone records of people with whom he had discussed state business. A trial court dismissed the suit on grounds that such records aren’t under public statute.
A petition has been made for further review of the suit by Colorado Supreme Court, said Christopher Beall, an attorney for newspapers statewide – including the SDN.
“There is no question that e-mails on someone’s BlackBerry or other (device) are a public record,” he said, adding that text messages haven’t yet been “confronted.”
The Summit Daily in 2008 used a Freedom of Information Act request to determine that a five-year, $14 million federal program – to prompt medical staff to ask patients about drug use – included $295,000 for marketing and public relations in one year. That year, $61,000 was given to a local clinic as part of the program.
In Colorado, town councils of Glenwood Springs, Olathe and others have been accused of using secret ballots during otherwise open meetings to make appointments and fill council vacancies.
“There does appear to be this sense that public bodies think they can get away with using secret ballots for decisions on public business,” Beall said, adding that Sunshine Laws make clear “the public’s business must be done in public.”
With the advent of the Internet, local communities have increasingly been posting public information online.
“Fort Collins is an example of a community that is going a long way toward giving public access to the government,” Beall said.
The city posts its council packet online (as do most Summit County towns) and streams video of meetings online as well as through television.
But the newspaper industry doesn’t support local governments going all online.
The Colorado Press Association opposes the publishing of legal notices online rather than in newspapers, said Ed Otte, executive director of the CPA.
“If all the notices were put online, you’re cutting out a certain percentage of the population,” he said.
He said people in rural areas may not have broadband access, and there are “income groups that don’t have computers in their homes, either.”
Breckenridge residents will vote April 6 whether to allow some legal notices and other town documents to be published exclusively online rather than in the Summit County Journal. The town attorney has said it will take time to determine which ones state law allows to be solely online (for example, annexations must be published in newsprint).
The town council supports the change.
Otte said there have been other instances in Colorado when voters voted to keep notices in the paper.
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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