DENVER - An ongoing series of reports by the CALL7 Investigators has revealed that obtaining a government record can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in Colorado. But a bill moving through the state legislature aims to change that.
"What we're trying to achieve is to standardize the amount that public entities can charge for CORA requests," said State Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat from Thornton.
CORA is the Colorado Open Records Act, which compels public entities like police departments, state agencies, and others to turn over records to citizens who want to see how their government is operating or spending money.
Salazar said he has seen some agencies charge almost anything they want to "research" records, including one case in which citizens are routinely forced to cover attorney fees.
"What I had seen on the website, it was $170 dollars an hour. $170 an hour for someone to file a CORA request because they run it past their attorney," Salazar said. "Well that's what the attorney gets paid for. They get paid by the public do already do that kind of a job."
Salazar's bill would strictly limit research costs to four times the minimum wage, currently about $32 per hour. It is now being considered in the Senate, after clearing the House with bi-partisan support.
"Everybody, regardless of what side of the aisle you're on, rural or urban or legislator, you want to make sure the government has some transparency," said State Representative Tim Dore, a Republican from eastern Colorado who has concerns about the bill.
"The issue becomes those really big requests where you're talking a lot of work especially in these small little communities," said Dore.
He said small towns and rural counties have few people, and few resources, to handle open records requests -- especially when those requests are large or complicated.
"Do we need to bring in a lawyer because something needs to be redacted, because there's HIPAA information, personal information in these requests," Dore said. "And then bringing in an outside counsel who may be on some kind of retainer but is going to be billable in some fashion to the county. That $32 won't necessarily cover that."
Dore admitted that such requests are rare, and that some counties have never received them at all. But he does support some structure that would allow greater cost recovery -- after a couple of hours of free research time, in an effort to protect counties from hardship.
"That that county that's barely making it, barely in the black, or maybe just barely in the red isn't getting hurt because somebody's open records request is so arduous," said Dore.
Salazar said while he understands that concern, lobbyists for municipal governments are using such a scenario to water down an important bill.
"They want to charge what they want. In fact, they tried running an amendment during the committee hearing that said that they could charge actual costs. Well actual costs can mean anything. And that's the problem that we're trying to fix," Salazar said. "Ultimately they are our records. They are created on the public dime … The whole purpose for this bill is to make government records, public records; these are our records, to make them more accessible to the public."
Salazar said the bill is one of several he intends to present in future legislative sessions -- to try to gradually bring more transparency to Colorado's government.