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Local governments, law enforcement agencies, school districts and other taxpayer-funded entities are sharing more information than ever with the public, thanks to the internet.
Want information on a road closure? Try Twitter.
Want to know what upcoming events are planned at your child’s school? The school’s website is your ticket.
No doubt, that information is helpful. But make no mistake, what you find on the web is not an all-access pass.
Want to know the name of the finalists for school district superintendent? Well ...
Or the name of the person arrested as the suspect in a local crime? Um ...
Often, that information is made public, depending on the agency. Sometimes, it’s not — or at least not right away.
Colorado’s open-records law generally stipulates that information held by a public agency is available to the public. But there are exceptions to the law, as well as different interpretations of the law that can lead to gray areas.
While most agencies and entities follow both the letter and the spirit of the state’s open-records laws, there is room for improvement. With this being Sunshine Week — the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information that runs March 11-17 — we have put together a short wish list of what we would like to see in the Denver metro area.
• State law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information that could jeopardize the public safety amid an ongoing investigation. That’s sound policy, in theory. But too often, “ongoing investigation” is used as a mantra, a way to keep from releasing anything but the smallest nuggets of information. We’re asking law enforcement to use this shield less frequently, only when public safety is truly at risk. Wouldn’t the public be better served to know more, not less?
• We would like all government entities to release a list of finalists for top positions. The Colorado Open Records Act mandates this for what it calls “executive” positions, such as city manager or school district superintendent. Last year, one of the state’s largest school districts skirted this rule by announcing a lone finalist for superintendent. At the very least, we feel that violated the spirit of the law. Members of the public deserve to know who is in consideration for positions paid for by their tax money.
• We’re calling for a greater diversity of voices from government entities. That means granting the media and members of the public easier and more access to leaders. In at least one of the towns we cover, the mayor has been anointed the sole spokesperson for the entire council. And we know of several government bodies that demand all requests for interviews with staff go through the official communications director, a needless step that can slow the reporting process. We believe the public would be better served to hear from a variety of voices, rather than a controlled, group message. Why not make it easier to achieve that?
• We would like to see more citizen involvement. Help us in our roles as watchdogs by asking questions of your elected leaders and by telling us when your voice is not being heard. The open-records law and the Sunshine Law, which regulates open meetings, are there for everyone. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition — a Denver-based nonpartisan group that promotes freedom of the press and open access to public records for all — is a great resource to learn more, including how to file an open-records request. Find out more at coloradofoic.org.
Sunshine Week arrived with a five-word slogan, one that we try to keep in mind year round.
“It’s your right to know.”
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