How much would you be willing to pay to use something you’ve already bought?
It’s a strange question, but Colorado Springs and El Paso County officials are betting the answer is, “not much.”
The Business Journal believes in the importance of open records, that goes without saying. People need to know what government is up to, need to understand how officials are using their money. Taxpayer-funded documents — anything from official emails, arrest records, minutes from governmental proceedings to copies of the city’s checkbook — are considered public domain, and anyone has the authority to ask to review them. It’s your money; they work for you.
As always, there are a few notable exceptions: A police department isn’t obligated to release documentation related to an ongoing investigation, for example, but generally speaking, as long the documents aren’t deemed hazardous to the public good, if you ask for them, you get them.
But first, you have to pay for it.
The Colorado Open Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act both allow governmental agencies to charge to release documents. The intention is to cover the researching and copying costs — something that’s a little misguided since we’re already paying for the officials’ time through taxes.
In Colorado Springs, the first two hours of research are free, then the cost is $20 per hour, charged in 15-minute increments; the first 25 pages of a request are free, then the cost is 25 cents per page.
In a somewhat ironic twist of CORA, Colorado Springs Independent reporter Pam Zubeck (the Indy is the Business Journal’s sister publication) obtained city statistics related to the frequency and cost of CORA requests. She found the city fielded 678 requests in 2017 and, for 25 of those requests, received $2,010 in fees. In 2018, the stats jumped to 951 requests and $2,470 in fees for 29 costly searches.
While that cumulative $4,480 isn’t much for a big department, it’s a lot when it comes out of civilian pocketbooks. Many of the most expensive requests were made by taxpayers — not the press.
Rarely, if ever, does a day go by when investigative reporters don’t have some story in the works that requires at least one records request. If each of those came with a charge, we could be in some fiscal dire straits. Or else the public just wouldn’t get the info. We’ve had to make that call in the past: balance the public good against the company’s bottom line. It’s not a great choice — someone loses.
Case in point: A reporter recently requested some basic data for a story from one of El Paso County’s largest departments. The estimate from the county: $1,170. Astonishing, since there was nothing particularly complicated about her request; nothing overly invasive for the department’s researchers or intrusive to the department’s day-to-day operations.
Kind of a high price tag for something that your taxes already paid for, don’t you think?
Here’s the thing: Governments don’t have to charge for these searches. Colorado Springs Utilities, which is subject to the same rules as the rest of the city and the county, has willingly handed the media and the community massive quantities of documents without charging a penny.
So we can’t help but wonder whether the fees are a punitive measure at turns, or merely an attempt to obscure data the county doesn’t want everyone to know. Even if it really is a $1,170 project, all the El Paso County department’s fee has done is cast a spotlight on a transparency problem.
The massive bill is ultimately preventing you, the constituents who pay the department’s bills, from getting the information you deserve — and actually own.