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Opinion: Colorado’s open-records law needs improving. Here’s a layman’s plan.

Albert Einstein spent his last years in New Jersey quietly working at the Institute for Advanced Study researching what we now realize was a futile attempt at a unified field theory.

 I have heard that when he was asked why he continued to pursue this line of inquiry, he remarked that it was because it was of interest to him and, as someone who was already famous, he didn’t have a career to consider in what he studied.

I often think about that and how I came to doing part-time journalism. I started my Facebook page Colorado Accountability Project recently as an outlet for the things that I research and comment on, but my desire to research what my government is doing and share with others goes back further.   

Cory Gaines

I remember seeing Gov. Jared Polis at a press conference mention the use of “mobility data” — the use of aggregated and anonymous cell phone GPS data to track where people were, how they congregated, etc. — in connection with the coronavirus and being concerned.  My questions centered mainly on transparency and ensuring that our right to privacy, and our right to protect our data, were cared for in the process.

Repeated requests to government offices returned nothing.  Repeated emails to reporters, newspapers and TV stations asking them to look into it (even proposing specific questions) returned nothing.

The good news is that we’re fortunate to live in a state with a decently robust (not perfect) system where you and I can get public records.  Anyone can send a request under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and get access to a pretty wide variety of documents.

(If you think you, too, would like to make public records requests, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s site is a good resource.  I’m also happy to help you; message me at my FB page.

I started looking to CORA requests as a way to get answers to my questions, but what I’m finding more and more is that the system has some pretty big flaws. The current rules often make the process cumbersome and put up barriers to information.

This is particularly the case if you are a citizen independently asking for information.  Despite lofty words about transparency and openness, there is often anything but in many departments of our state government.  I read this article and this post recently and could commiserate.

My own personal experience has included being asked to pay a $1-per-email fee (totaling about $2,700) by the Colorado Attorney General’s office along with obfuscating non-answers from some records custodians.

I’ve come across many records custodians that have gone out of their way to be helpful.  Intentional or not, however, the system is often set up such that a government agency can price people out of information — particularly regular citizens like you and me. This should not be possible.    

The system is set up to be confusing and difficult as well. In my experience,  departments and agencies are free to set their own policies on how long things like emails are kept. The shortest I’m aware of is 30 days.

Having such a potentially short time to seek records, you and I are robbed of the ability to see what our elected officials are doing.  By the time an interesting morsel of news filters down to someone with few political connections such as myself, and by the time I have a minute to prepare a CORA request, I am often left wondering how many of the relevant emails I sought have timed out.

I struggle to even find out what the policies are!  After hearing that such time limits existed on a CORA request with the AG’s office, I emailed over to Gov. Polis’ office to see what their policy was. I got a rambling email back that failed to give me the one piece of information: How long do you keep the governor’s emails?

It should not be this way.  The rules should be easily identifiable.  The rules should be the same across the state.

Not having transparency, not having parity with government officials, robs you and I both of the ability to follow what our government is doing.  We as citizens cannot effectively do our job at the ballot box if we don’t have information enough to assess those we elect.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Whether you agree with the current policy and decisions our government is now making, I hope that you and I could both agree on that.  

I have written an open letter to the governor and the leadership of both houses of the Colorado General Assembly urging them to take up some reform to CORA — its costs, the policies around what is kept and for how long — in the coming session.  

I am now writing here to urge the same and I hope you join me.


Cory Gaines of Sterling is a native Coloradan who lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”


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