Written by Stephanie Russell
Last month, transparency prevailed at the House Local Government Committee Hearing regarding the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), or HB12-1193. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Salazar and Rep. Kefalas, drew fourteen witnesses to the capitol to testify before the Committee. The bill proposed a capped amount of four times the minimum wage that a Custodian of Records may charge for the research and retrieval of public records, required that that prices be posted online or otherwise published for public viewing, and sought to codify the case law of nominal fees compared to actual fees of retrieval.
There was a lot of energetic debate as to who exactly would bear the burden of the overall cost of the bill. Would smaller counties would be at a disadvantage since they have limited staff for document retrieval and not be able to fully recuperate the costs to retrieve the requested documents, or would large out-of-state corporate requests burden the system and end up costing the tax payers money because local governments could not charge actual costs of retrieval to these corporations. One idea, though, was absolutely clear throughout the testimony: government should be transparent to all, and citizens should not have to pay exorbitant fees in order to peek inside the inner workings of government operations. High fees decrease transparency by discouraging participation in the democratic process.
Currently, there are a wide range of fees that can be associated with record requests, and since there is no current requirement to post research and retrieval fees online, some fees can seem like they were made up ad hoc. This type of opaque practice leaves room for requestors to question whether they are paying for the actual cost of their request, instead of the nominal amount required by law. Since taxpayers already pay the government in the form of taxes, it is not reasonable to ask that they pay additional fees in order to verify what the government is doing with taxpayer money. These are citizen-owned records already.
CORA passed with an amendment to the Committee of the Whole with a vote of 9 to 4 and subsequently passed as amended in its second reading in the House on Friday, February 21, 2014. The bill is now waiting for a Senate committee hearing.
Stephanie Russell is an MSW candidate at the University of Denver.