Salazar looks to address Colorado’s up-and-down open records fees

DENVER — At the end of a hot, dry summer, the Colorado Court of Appeals approved a $16,025 records-retrieval fee assessed to property owners in Arapahoe County who requested emails about a Parker Jordan Metropolitan District stream improvement project. It’s the kind of price tag that dampens the will to watchdog government and clouds the work of public officials.

“It was an eyeopener for us and a lot of other people,” said Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch. “Open records requests are fundamental to our mission and, just in the course of our everyday work, we had noticed the wide variation in policies around fees, particularly the sometimes outrageous fees municipalities want to charge for these requests.”

Representative Joe Salazar, a Democrat from Thornton, plans to introduce a bill this legislative session that would standardize fees for requests made under the Colorado Open Records Act, commonly referred to as CORA.

“We’re seeing abuses on both ends,” Salazar told the Independent. “Public entities will get these really abusive open records requests and put in an awful lot of time, effort and taxpayer dollars into responding. Then the person who asked for the documents never shows up. There’s no accountability.

“On the other hand, there are abuses on the part of public entities, where someone will file a records request, and sometimes they’re pretty simple, and the entity will charge an enormous amount of money to fulfill the request and assign the work to someone who already gets paid to do open records stuff, so they’re basically double charging the public.”

Salazar said his bill is designed to strike at that double-dipping and also at frivolous or nuisance requests.

“Say, for example, the town of Salida charges $170 an hour to review and fulfill a CORA request,” he said. “That is an outrageous amount of money. I know I’m always picking on Salida, and they get upset, but that is an outrageous amount of money. These are public documents, these are our documents,” he said, explaining that taxpayers have already paid officials to produce the documents and so shouldn’t have to pay fully again just to read them.

Although the town of Salida can charge as much as $190 an hour to fulfill particularly delicate CORA requests, Deputy Clerk Audrey Gilpin says their fees start at $20 an hour and are only assessed in a very limited number of cases.

“Out of 98 requests in 2013, we asked for payment for 10 requests,” Gilpin told theIndependent. “Of those, four people agreed to the fee to receive the requested information.”

Salazar said his bill is written to encourage requestors to write specific requests. Document fishing expeditions may still cost a lot, but narrow, informed requests would cost little or nothing.

Toro sees the bill as a good first step toward an Open Records Act correction that doesn’t wildly favor public entities. Salazar’s bill, as it is, he said, would seem to benefit both sides.

Salazar said the bill, a version of which he introduced last year that failed to pass, is the product of a working group that has worked for years on reform and that includes 45 stakeholders.

“It’s not as if anyone will be shocked by this bill,” he said. He doubts it will please all parties. Everyone had to compromise, he explained , so there may be a dearth of energized supporters when it comes time for public testimony at the capitol.

“The fact is, I may not get anyone wanting this bill to come forward,” he said. “But that just means I’m on the right track. If nobody likes it, maybe it means it’s affecting everybody in a way that will strike balance.”

[ Photo by  opensourceway ]