The Post editorial: You, too, can hold government accountable
It should have been a simple fix to Colorado’s Open Records Act, but instead it became a complex political negotiation that was almost derailed.
Thankfully Colorado lawmakers were able to wrangle Senate Bill 40 back into a six-page, manageable piece of legislation requiring that government entities release records in digital formats that are searchable and sortable if the data or information is already in that format.
State Sens. John Kefalas and Bob Gardner and Rep. Dan Pabon made a few concessions in the bill to get it through a divided legislature on the issue, but all of the changes seem, at face value, to be reasonable. We are glad the lawmakers abandoned a version of the bill that we worried had become so heavily amended it could have opened up the floodgates for denials to legitimate public-records requests.
Everyone should care that lawmakers were able to find a solution to this problem. As technology advances, it has become easier for the public to be watchdogs of their own government, and as government has grown and the number of journalists has decreased, the Fourth Estate can no longer do it alone. We need your help.
Wonder what your local water district is up to? Thankfully, those entities are almost always subject to CORA as quasi-governmental agencies and you can request their data on things regarding water quality or user fees and rates.
That’s what Carl Paulson did last summer when he requested data from Denver Water and plotted graphs to illustrate to commissioners that the highest water-users were getting a break on their bills under a new rate structure while those using less water were paying more than before.
Wonder how your school district distributes money between schools? That data should be available in a usable format — unless your school district is still using actual books for accounting purposes.
Data can not only illuminate public policy impacts but can inform and guide them. Paulson’s discoveries would not have been possible without usable data that was provided in an electronic format.
Now that the law clearly requires data be provided in a usable format when requested and already stored in that manner, we hope more and more taxpayers and voters become diligent about regularly checking in on the many governments in our lives.
That’s what open-government advocate Jeff Roberts is calling for in the wake of passage of SB 40. Roberts, executive director of Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he’s advocating for the public to use their open-records rights when they want information about what their government is up to.
We echo that sentiment.
And we hope that government entities honor the intent of the law in good faith and don’t use important exceptions in the law to skirt having to provide data. For example, the law now includes an exemption for “system operational data of such assets that would be useful to a person in planning an attack … .”
Agencies would be wise not to abuse this exception just because officials don’t want to reveal that the “system” is inefficient or leaking or dangerous.
Go flex that open records act muscle when you need data about how your government is operating.