Colorado Open Records Act digital update bounds over last legislative hurdles

Author: John Tomasic - May 10, 2017 - Updated: May 10, 2017

Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, in his legislative office, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, in his legislative office, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

The Colorado Open Records Act this year will receive a long-overdue digital-era update after Senate Bill 40 on Wednesday ended its switchback journey over the entire course of the 120-day legislative session Wednesday, finishing in the Senate with an against-all-odds unanimous vote of support.

“No one would have guessed it would receive all 35 votes in the Senate,” said sponsor Sen. John Kefalas, a Democrat from Fort Collins. “I think the bill does move the dial forward in meaningful ways and brings up the window just a tad in granting greater access to records that belong to the people.

“We have made progress. We haven’t hurt CORA. There’s more work to be done,” he said.

The Colorado Open Records Act dates to 1969 and for years served as a cutting-edge inspiration for open-government efforts around the country. But in the nearly 50 years that have passed, CORA has fallen into semi-decrepitude, a paper-and-ink law shuffling through the digital age.

For years, records requestors seeking to access public records in digital formats have been frustrated.

Kefalas’s bill, which was sponsored in the House by Denver Democrat Dan Pabon, requires custodians of “structured data” public records — including enormous university datasets — must provide accurate and searchable digital copies when requested.

Debate around the bill turned on how best to strike a balance between privacy and safety concerns and the public’s right to access.

More than 100 groups were monitoring the bill. Opponents included water districts, universities, local school boards, the state coroners association and local chambers of commerce. Supporters included press and broadcaster associations, the American Federation of Teachers union, and state government watchdog groups Common Cause and Ethics Watch.

This year’s bill follows on a failed attempt Kefalas made last year and a months-long working group that met during the legislative interim.

This year, hearings on the bill were delayed with little notice. Stakeholder support wavered.

“There was a commitment to get something passed,” said Kefalas. “I believe the bill struck a balance.

“We did not want to change CORA — what’s disclosable now under CORA, we really didn’t want to change that. We just wanted to change the last step, how the information is delivered to the public.”

Kefalas credits Pabon with moving the bill over the finish line.

“He didn’t want this thing to die,” Kefalas said. “There were times we thought, Maybe we should let it go. Things are too complicated. But in the end, other representatives got on board and there were a number of pretty laborious stakeholder meetings late last week.

“I would say, maybe we didn’t hit it out of the park, but I think we got a triple,” he said, looking around the Senate. “The introduced version was more comprehensive, but [the bill still] does make meaningful change as far as how CORA records are released to the public. I think it does boost transparency and open government.”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.