When even an elected city council member — a former city attorney, no less — has trouble laying his hands on public documents he has requested from his own staff, it raises questions: About whether the staffers are in compliance with state public records laws; about whether the city needs to tweak its own rules on the subject; about whether the state law itself — the Colorado Open Records Act — has all the teeth it needs to get the job done.
Some Aurora City Council members have had those and other questions, especially after one of their peers, Ward IV City Councilman Charlie Richardson, made a records request of Aurora City Hall not long ago for documents related to to a traffic sign along South Havana Street. Richardson was quoted a price for the labor it would take to retrieve the documents — that’s allowed under local and state laws — but later was told the cost had nearly tripled. As the Aurora Sentinel’s Quincy Snowdon reports:
Initially estimated to cost about $180 in staff time and printing fees, Richardson became incensed after the estimated price ballooned to nearly $500. He also took issue with the amount of information that was redacted from the documents his request generated.
Richardson didn’t hold back on the subject at a council workshop last Saturday, Snowdon reports:
“May I be so bold to suggest that the basis of the CORA law in Colorado is open access to documents?” Richardson said at the recent meeting at Meadow Hills Golf Course. “It is not supposed to be a minefield in the redaction game; chutes and ladders, OK? … God help any other citizen in this city who tries to go the CORA route.”
Some other council members joined in:
“I have huge issues if one of the staff tell me, ‘Excuse me, that’s confidential,’” Councilwoman Barb Cleland said. “You’re a staff member — you just email that information. It’s confidential? Who’s your freakin’ boss? I am.”
Councilwoman Renie Peterson of Ward II has been critical of her communications with staff for several months after she learned that city workers had been negotiating a potential lease with a homeless advocacy group in her ward.
“We’re the policymakers, we expect all the information to be given to us by our staff so that we can make a responsible decision,” she said. “… We are left out in left field (and) we know nothing about what’s going on or what took place until we know about it from outside of our organization.”
The session concluded with Mayor Steve Hogan asking staff to get the records issue back on the front burner before a council policy committee to make recommendations for changes.
As Snowdon explains, other internal channels are available to council members seeking information from the city bureaucracy, but Richardson, who has filed other records requests, contends those alternatives have yielded incomplete information.
As Snowdon also reports, much-debated legislation still pending in the General Assembly today — its last day in session — could make things easier by requiring government entities to provided requested documents in an electronically searchable format. That could sidestep some of the need for retrieving cumbersome hard copies of records. Senate Bill 40 is awaiting action on the House floor.