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Editorial: Freedom of Information laws important to democracy

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Sunshine is good for democracy. At least that's what we journalists think, and the Founding Fathers seemed to agree, judging by the First Amendment.

March 12-18 is Sunshine Week - an annual, nationwide celebration of access to public information. News agencies across the country are using this week to help share the message that transparency in government is important, that a free and independent press is important, and that the defense and adherence to sunshine laws helps support those ideals.

Sunshine laws refer to the national Freedom of Information Act and any number of state open-record and open-meeting laws that help we, the people, keep tabs on what those in power are doing.

While these laws directly affect how well journalists can do our jobs, those same laws are intended for all citizens' benefit. It can be a way for concerned folks to do their part to keep government honest. Recent examples include a parent in Jefferson County who wanted to know which teachers had participated in a sick-out that affected their child's education and an Arvada man who objected to his city council's use of a secret ballot to elect a new councilmember.

Filing an open-records request is something anyone can do. It requires filling out a formal request - a template can be found on the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition's website at coloradofoic.org - that must be turned in to the government entity's records custodian. Some agencies have their own forms.

Of course, journalists use these tools, too. Within the past year, Colorado Community Media reporters submitted public records requests - per the Colorado Open Records Act, often known as CORA - for, among other things, the salaries of high-ranking Douglas County School District employees and the names of the finalists for the Lone Tree police chief position.

Sunshine laws also help set expectations for elected officials and government staff, helping to encourage a mindset of transparency and honesty that benefits all of us.

Recently, one of our reporters noticed that the Adams County Board of Commissioners seemed to turn off the audio recorder occasionally during their public study sessions. The county called these pauses in the recording "administrative review items."

In checking with the state's open meetings law, we found that since Adams County officials were not making decisions during any part of their study sessions, they were not required by law to record any of it. We applaud Adams County for going above the requirements of state law - other counties don't record study or work sessions - even as we ask them to reconsider turning off the mic for those administrative items.

Not every section of government we cover is quite so good at following the spirit, or even the letter, of the law.

Jefferson County Schools is amid a national search for a new superintendent, the second such search in two years. Last time, as with this time, neither the hiring firm, Ray and Associates, nor the school district intends to release the names of the finalists. That's a problem because any official decision made by a public board is supposed to be done in public. But in Jeffco Schools' case, a prior school board merely announced whom it had hired after the fact.

It also seems in clear violation of the state's open meetings law: "The state or local public body shall make public the list of all finalists under consideration for the position of chief executive officer no later than fourteen days prior to appointing or employing one of the finalists to fill the position."

In honesty, many of Colorado's cities, counties and school districts ignore this portion of the law, according to Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts.

Another place where we often see a lack of transparency is from law enforcement agencies that seem far too quick to cite an "ongoing investigation" as a way of not giving more information about a case.

The law - the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act - does allow agencies to hold back information that would be "contrary to the public interest" if it were released. We take this to mean that releasing the information could jeopardize an investigation. And certainly, sometimes there are details that could do so. But so little is released so often that "ongoing investigation" seems to have become an easy blanket answer that dodges the harder question officers should be asking: What information can we give out now for the public's benefit that doesn't really affect the course of the investigation?

Law enforcement agencies are not alone in being protected from having to release certain kinds of information. City, county and school board officials cannot, for example, release details of personnel matters or specifics of board discussions regarding real estate negotiations. But when an agency rejects handing over the information, by law, it must cite the statute that allows them to do so. You see, it is presumed that the information belongs to the public and the entity must state the reason why it is denying the request.

That is why while we can sympathize that a potential candidate for a city manager or superintendent position might not want their current employers to know they've been job hunting, that potential job is still paid for through our tax dollars. Also, that position has a direct and powerful impact on our communities. It is our right to know who we are considering to hire, and to know that our elected officials are making those choices.

So go ahead and enjoy all that great Colorado sunshine, and help it spread far and wide by supporting a trusted news source, or by serving as a watchdog yourself. You'll be doing democracy a favor.

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