Open records and open meetings assure transparent governing. It’s that simple. Any argument for closing records should be met with both skepticism and alarm.
Why? Because keeping records from the public keeps important — sometimes vital — information from the people appointed and elected officials pledged to serve.
In this case, the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s sister paper, the Colorado Springs Independent, and the Colorado Springs Gazette are seeking the autopsy reports of El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick, and a car theft suspect, Manual Zentina, both of whom died in February as law enforcement officials were trying to apprehend Zentina. A bystander was also gravely injured in the incident and that has raised questions about law enforcement procedures.
Robert Bux, the county coroner, is asking the courts to keep the autopsies from public view, citing the grief of the deputy’s widow and his children as the main reason. As much as we understand and sympathize with the family’s grief, more is at stake in this case. Much more.
Open records are about more than an individual — and this court decision is about more than a single case. It will set a precedent for further decisions to keep the public in the dark, whether the case involves law enforcement officials or children or alleged criminals.
Bux tried this once before, and failed. He also suggested legislation that would have barred autopsies of children from public release — legislation that Gov. John Hickenlooper rightly vetoed this spring. Again, the coroner’s reasoning: the grief of the parents. And again, that isn’t enough to negate the public’s right to know and to fix problems uncovered in records that are available to all.
Case in point: If it were up to him, Bux would close the autopsy reports of children. But having access to those reports helped a Denver Post and 9News investigation uncover widespread failure of public servants to respond to abuse allegations, abuse that resulted in deaths. The public deserved to know the system failed.
Open, transparent government is vital to a democracy. Public records are made available to every single one of us, not just the media, to make sure our elected officials are acting in our best interest, to help ferret out wrongdoing and to tell people exactly what happened with any given event.
The legislature passed the Colorado Open Records Act because it realized a government unaccountable to the people was a government where abuse of power could go unchecked. Given all that’s at risk when records are hidden, it’s shocking anyone in public office would ever advocate to keep records closed. The Business Journal stands with The Independent in opposing Bux’s petition to the court. Keep public records public — it’s the right of citizens living in a transparent, fair democracy. n CSBJ