Sunshine Week column: Digitizing public records
In a bit of a surprise, Senate Bill 40 passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee with a 4-3 vote Tuesday.
SB 40 represents a bipartisan effort that would require public records be made available to the public in digital formats that allow for easy searching and analyzing.
Currently, some governments in Colorado provide access to public records in the digital format in which those records are kept. Others provide some digital access in limited formats, such as PDF, that make searching and analyzing those records difficult at best.
Still other governments in the state provide only access to paper copies of public records.
For the news media, passing the bill as it was originally proposed was a no-brainer. Not only would it create a uniform, statewide standard for what kind of access the public is given to public records — which is good, practically speaking — it would make sure the public has the best kind of access that allows residents to clearly understand what their governments are doing. That would be a step forward for transparency in government.
However, concerns linger about some amendments that were attached to the original bill as it was debated in committee.
One amendment would make Colorado’s judicial branch subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. That move comes with a price tag of more than $50,000 as well as fierce opposition from House Democrats. In other words, this amendment makes it likely the bill wouldn’t make it through the Legislature.
Perhaps even more troubling were amendments added to SB 40 to address concerns about cybersecurity and general safety. While the intent of those amendments may have been pure, they also could be used to create broad new exceptions to CORA. That would further limit the public’s access to government records and make our governments less transparent, the exact opposite of the original bill’s intent.
Government records belong to the public. The public, therefore, deserves the best and widest possible access to those records.
So, though the bill made it out of committee and newspapers still support passing it, news organizations do so under the assumption state officials will continue to tweak it and refine it until it returns to something similar to its original form: A bill doesn’t change what records are subject to disclosure, only the format in which they are disclosed.
Any version of SB 40 that in any way restricts the public’s access to public records would be unacceptable and something newspapers would not support.
Let’s pay attention as state senators begin debating SB 40. This week is Sunshine Week. In the name of transparency, let’s hope they do the right thing.
Colorado Mountain News Media owns and operates the Craig Daily Press and the Steamboat Pilot & Today.Colorado Mountain News Media owns and operates the Craig Daily Press and the Steamboat Pilot & Today.Colorado Mountain News Media owns and operates the Craig Daily Press and the Steamboat Pilot & Today.