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State public records survey produces mixed results

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    NMU         COLORADO         Freedom of Information         Nov 21, 2000    

State public records survey produces mixed results

  • Newspaper reporters run into access denials and uninformed records custodians in a four-month public access survey.

A survey conducted by Colorado newspapers found that 66 percent of records requested from six public agencies were released to reporters within three days of the request. But even while providing the sought-after records, some custodians violated the open access law with their questions to the reporters.

During a four-month period beginning in July, reporters from 36 Colorado newspapers fanned out across the state to visit all 63 counties. In each county a reporter visited a school district to ask for the superintendent’s salary and benefits package, a police department to ask for a list of recent burglaries in a selected neighborhood, a jail to obtain a list of current inmates, a mayor’s office to ask for travel and entertainment expenses, a county health office for restaurant health inspection reports and another police department to get a list of persons charged with a crime in the last 24 hours. If the record was not released to the reporter on the initial walk-in visit, the reporter gave the agencies 72 hours to comply with the requests before tabulating the results.

The school districts released records in three-quarters of the requests. Police departments released the list of recent burglaries 68 percent of the time. The names of inmates in the county jails were released in 71 percent of cases. When reporters asked for a mayor’s expense report, the city released the record 59 percent of the time and county health officials released restaurant inspection reports about half the time. The overall compliance rate was 66 percent.

More than half of the records custodians asked unlawful questions of the reporters who sought the record even though the state open records law prohibits a custodian from asking any questions of the requester. Journalists participating in this survey reported that eight of the agencies required them to produce personal identification. In addition, custodians asked requesters to explain their interest in the desired information.

Whether any action is taken to increase record custodian compliance with the open records laws remains to be seen. In a statement released to the Rocky Mountain News prior to release of the survey’s results, Gov. Bill Owens wrote that he believed any violations of the open records law were “isolated and not representative of general practices in those agencies under my direction.”

The Colorado survey results are available on the web at http://www.insidedenver.com/news/1116county.shtml

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© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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