Publisher’s note: The following editorial is reprinted from the October 19, 2006 edition of The SUN.
You are a taxpaying citizen; you cast your vote in local, state and national elections. You elect representatives you believe will inform themselves about issues in ways you haven’t the time or energy to do; you elect them to then make reasonable decisions for the best for the greatest number of people they represent. And for you. Their boss.
And how do you, the boss, and your fellow bosses keep track of the representative system you put in place, of the elected officials, and the administrators and bureaucrats those officials hire? How do you stay abreast of the biggest and hottest issues, as well as of the minutiae of business in a structured society?
You obtain information. In many cases, the bosses rely on others to ferret out the information — journalists of all sorts. Yet, other times, when it comes to certain records, less than spectacular information that can, nonetheless, make a big difference in a life, the boss must procure it him or herself.
In the newspaper business, we are constantly seeking information, asking for records, asking to see the minutes of meetings, to listen to tape recordings made at meetings of elected officials.
Here in Pagosa Country, resistance to requests is rare. Seldom has a district or official refused information and been forced to turn over records following a formal legal request. Generally, when we ask to hear the tape of a meeting, we meet no resistance. Seldom have we been refused data concerning an issue or process in the public realm. This is appreciated; it is our job to bring that information to light. It is also positive for the governmental bodies, the elected officials, the administrators and other employees. Resistance sends a clear signal there is something wrong; it engenders more pointed suspicion and leads to a more vigorous pursuit.
But, for the ordinary citizen, it is not always easy. So says a study conducted by 23 newspapers of The Associated Press and the Colorado Press Association. The study was conducted in 21 communities across the state and sought to obtain records from counties, municipalities, special districts and school districts. Survey participants included reporters, members of the general public, interns and others.
In some instances, a vast array of records was already online and other requests were met promptly, with attention to the law. In too many cases, requests were met with confusion, rudeness, suspicion. Survey members found school districts, overall, regarded requests with the most suspicion, often quizzing those who made requests about who they were and why they wanted information. The law does not give any district more latitude than others. Court rulings have made it clear requests — even for things like e-mails between elected officials and employees — can be made without identifying who you are or why you want the information. The questions can be asked; they need not be answered.
In cases where information is not readily available, government can wait three working days before providing it — but why wait if it is readily available?
Bottom line: Under the Colorado Public Records Law, with some exceptions for personnel or proprietary commercial information, a citizen is entitled to see any public record, in any form, that has been created, maintained and used in the carrying out of government’s duties or in the receipt and use of public funds.
If you want to know something about government and elected officials — with the slender prohibitions in the law in mind — ask. Having information, from all manner of public entities, can make a significant difference in your life. If you meet resistance, do not give up your right.
After all, you are the boss.