Contrary to the public interest: The high cost of public information

The CALL7 Investigators found several citizens who were forced to walk away from records requests because of the high fees.

The City of Glendale asked Lance Highland for tens of thousands of dollars when he tried to determine whether the police department had discriminated against him and his same-sex partner because of their sexual orientation.

Highland used CORA to request emails from the city about police actions. He wanted to see if officers were using derogatory terms.

His request followed an allegation that his same-sex partner exposed himself to a foster child. Highland said the child was upset that the couple decided not to adopt him.

Records show a misdemeanor indecent for an exposure charge against Highland's partner was dropped earlier this year.

When Highland wanted to see if any officers made anti-gay comments about him or his partner, he was told he would need to pay as much as $25,000.

Glendale Deputy City Manager Chuck Line said in a phone interview that the city pays a contractor $125 an hour for computer work and that's what it would cost to produce the records. He said it is not fair for taxpayers to pick up that expense.

While Highland concedes he doesn’t have smoking gun proof of bias, he said Glendale should want to determine if police acted appropriately.

"I would think that they would have taken this a little more seriously," Highland said.

Highland said he could sue for discrimination and hopes a suit would give him access to records.

Media organizations have also received large bills to obtain public records.

When CALL7 Investigators were trying to confirm whether agencies test all rape kits, Jefferson County Sheriff's department wrote that it would cost nearly $24,460 to produce the records. But when 7NEWS arrived for an interview about the costs, they produced much of the information for free.

And in 2008, when CALL7 Investigators were reporting on slow ambulance response times from Denver Health – including a 33-minute response to a commercial plane accident -- Denver Health wanted nearly $30,000 for the information.

Many times, reporters must negotiate down the request to make it affordable but the negotiation may leave some questions unanswered.

While the Colorado Municipal League defends agencies that charge fees, it is impossible to know how much taxpayers across the state are paying for access to records the law deems public. Many agencies don't track requests or what fees they collect for them.

"We fail to release records because the law tells it's against the law for us to release records," said Geoff Wilson, general counsel for the Colorado Municipal League. "The vast majority of records requests are handled right away. There's no problem. There's no fee or there is a very limited amount of waiting or fee."

Moreover, fees vary around the state.

For instance, Colorado judges, including those sitting on the state's highest court, crafted their own rules and fees for the release of records without involving the state legislature. Because judges made the rules, they are the ones who would likely hear a challenge. That's a problem, according to state Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton).

"The conflict is that the individuals who have power to allow you to have these records are the same individuals who have interest in keeping those records away from you," Joe Salazar said. "That's the conflict."

The CALL7 Investigators took undercover cameras into several courthouses and found disparities when requesting to see simple court cases. In Douglas County, a clerk said anyone who isn’t party to a case must pay $5 to see the file. In Adams County, their clerk would only charge if a clerk had to look up the case number. In Denver District Court, there was no fee at all to see a file.

More disturbing was that clerks for the state's highest court were providing people with the wrong information about what was available.

"Only the attorney can see his case," a Supreme Court clerk told an undercover CALL7 producer.

"I thought it was a public record?" the producer asked.

"Not when it comes to like, juveniles or sex assaults," the clerk said.

"That's interesting because the law says the name of the victims of sexual assaults or alleged sexual assaults should be deleted from any record prior to the release of such record," the producer said, pulling out the law. "Not, nothing."

The clerk then back peddled, saying the producer would then have to pay for redaction.

When the clerk's boss came out, she agreed that the clerk was not providing accurate information.

The clerk's boss said she would look into possible "training issues."

In 2005, Colorado's Supreme Court chief justice signed a directive, which promised to "maximize accessibility to court records" and "promote governmental accountability." Information freedom experts say the directive really does the reverse, closing off stacks of public records while allowing each district to set its own procedures and fees.

Plaintiffs and defendants in a case are always public record, but the directive said a bulk database with that information is not public. So, for example, if a person wanted to know how many lawsuits were filed against a contractor, he would have to go to every district in the state and look up the cases.  Some courts would charge for the privilege of pulling the record.

"The Colorado Supreme Court, in the rules that the court promulgated, says that there is a presumption of access to court records but then has promulgated restrictions and fees and requirements around access to court records so that sometimes it's expensive, sometimes the records aren't available," Chris Beall, a partner in the media law firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP.