Colorado needs a 21st-century open-records law


By Jeffrey A. Roberts

Special to The SUN

When was the last time you used microfilm or microfiche to find information? Does the phrase “on-line bulletin board” bring to mind that screeching noise associated with dial-up connections from 20 years ago?

That’s how long it’s been since the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) was amended to ensure access to public records “kept only in miniaturized or digital form.” This section of the law, with its tech terms from the 1990s and earlier, is so antiquated and so nonspecific that it’s practically useless.

Vital information about our state and local governments is stored in databases and spreadsheets: salaries, budgets, building permits, revenue, spending ... the list goes on. But requesting databases and spreadsheets is a crapshoot in Colorado.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have no problem getting public records in a format that allows for searching, sorting and aggregating. Too often, however, database records are released in a format that makes analysis difficult, or they’re not released at all.

Remember: Public money pays for the creation and maintenance of databases used by state agencies, cities, counties, school districts and special districts. These databases contain information about how your tax dollars are spent and how government policies are formulated and implemented.

It shouldn’t be hard for journalists and interested citizens to get and explore public information. But consider Colorado State University’s response when the Fort Collins Coloradoan wanted to scrutinize salary trends for CSU employees. The information is kept in a database, but CSU officials pointed the newspaper to 145 printed pages on file at the university’s library.

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