Inquiring minds may want to know all they can about the workings of the government, but the journalists who reveal what goes on have to pay — a lot.
Colorado boasts an invaluable tool against government corruption and public disinformation: The Colorado Open Records Act.
Essentially, it says that the public owns all government records, and, with few exceptions, those records must be disclosed upon request.
Based on the principle of the federal Freedom of Information Act, the invaluable CORA tool is responsible for thousands of media stories and investigations exposing awkward, dangerous and even illegal feats by the entire range of Colorado governments and government officials.
The Sentinel, like dozens of media outlets across the state, have depended on the law to make important facts public and piece together information stashed in government file cabinets and hard drives.
Several recent Sentinel stories and investigations into controversial incidents inside the Aurora Police Department would have gone unreported or been incomplete without the capability of a so-called CORA request to ferret out information and details not made public.
A vast trove of critical stories uncovered by diligent media across Colorado — revealing malfeasance among foster child systems, social service agencies, school districts — would never have been possible if not for the mighty CORA law.
But the information gleaned for the public’s benefit through CORA requests comes with a price, too often, an unbearable one.
Colorado governments are allowed to charge as much as about $34 an hour to retrieve records for reporters, or anyone who asks for them.
For just relatively minor requests related to a few recent stories, the Sentinel paid nearly $1,000 for records needed to help shed light on a variety of issues the community has regularly deemed compelling.
The costs are often prohibitive.
Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul reportedly snarked to fellow Sun journalists last year when a CORA request he made for a story about inmate deaths and injuries generated an estimate of $245,000, according to a recent story by AP writer Jesse Bedayn about CORA costs and an effort to mitigate them for news media.
The push and pull over the power of journalists to compel information, and the reality that it takes some government employee real time to provide it, has been an issue since the law was created in 1969.
Governments across the state have consistently and successfully persuaded legislators that providing public information isn’t a core service of government, and at least part of the “costs” of searching for, reading, redacting and emailing records should be borne by the requester, often journalists.
But not always.
By design, anyone can use the CORA law to demand public records, and they do.
The act is notoriously used for political purposes to glean information used in an almost Spy-vs-Spy circus to cause embarrassment or discomfort among competing politicians or forces.
The law is also regularly used for outright business purposes, often uncovering all kinds of commercial leads kept by government agencies for unrelated purposes.
The feeling among most government officials and legislators — themselves sometimes stung by CORA demands of their own email — outed by political foes, is to charge them in an effort to discourage them. As a matter of “fairness,” journalists get charged and discouraged along the way.
So, for decades, the media and governments across the state have grumbled and groused at each other.
Now, some state lawmakers, sympathetic to the plight of news media, already under increasing economic difficulties, are proposing CORA “discounts” for reporters.
Essentially, legitimate reporters working for legitimate media might get half off the costs of record searches.
The very large problem is deciding what constitutes legitimate, state recognized, news gathering and news gatherers? Lots of political organs present themselves as journalism but are clearly partisans or simply wielding a political agenda. Are they, however, not journalists, too?
The thorny question of what constitutes “real” journalism practiced by “real” journalists becomes dangerous, especially when the information gatekeepers get to judge their questioners.
A better solution is to impose the $15-an-hour cap for everyone who asks, except for those who seek information for clearly commercial purposes.
In addition, certain records should be provided at no charge. Emails of elected and appointed officials, expense records and electronic court records should all be borne by the government as part of their responsibilities that taxpayers are already paying for. The very basics of accountability should always be included in the costs of the government doing business.
For the most part in Aurora, it is. The Sentinel regularly requests and receives, at no charge, police reports and all kinds of basic information from the city, schools, counties and other governments to ensure our factual reporting.
But we, too, are deeply burdened and limited in our reporting because of the costs governments want to charge us just to find out what you need to know.
While state lawmakers have yet to officially offer a bill to change the CORA law, it’s likely coming this session, according to Colorado Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Jeff Roberts.
If it allows the government to officially decide who practices real journalism and who doesn’t, you can probably count us out of supporting it.
If it reduces the cost for everyone who looks for information inside the government to provide accountability and transparency, regardless of the agenda, I’m in.
But just ignoring this growing problem makes winners out of those who seek to discourage transparency by overcharging for it.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Mastadon, Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or dperry@SentinelColorado.com
Personally I don’t think genuine media should be charged anything. I do think this is a great idea to keep “1st Amendment Auditors” from being a menace to society as they usually are.
Wouldn’t it also be prudent to license known journalism outlets and charge a fee to new and unknown outlets to become licensed, so that the state limits political fishing expeditions? I agree that real and legitimate news outlets should not be soaked for access to information about government meetings and communications.
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