The issue: Government is not always transparent.
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What we think: A free press holds powerful entities accountable.
On May 29, the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Independent — along with the Gazette, KOAA, KKTV, Fox21 and Denver’s KDVR and KUSA-TV — scored a major victory against the El Paso County government and for the people’s right to know.
Together, media spent close to $30,000 on a fight for transparency — a battle against the county’s taxpayer-funded lawyers, who were attempting to seal public records related to an embarrassing and tragic incident. Fourth Judicial District Judge Michael McHenry not only decided that the media were in the right, but that the county must pay the legal fees. (By the way, if the county had just paid the legal fees when they finally released those records, that bill would have stood at around $1,500. The county hasn’t said if it will appeal. Your tax dollars at work!)
All of this stemmed from former El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux’s refusal last year to release autopsy reports for Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick, killed in the line of duty, and suspect Manuel Zetina, gunned down by law enforcement. Bux noted Flick’s widow didn’t want the report released, and that the deaths were an open investigation.
The law sets no such parameters. Autopsies — except in the rarest of instances — are public records, plain and simple. And it’s hard not to be skeptical about the reasons behind attempting to shield these particular reports (which Bux ultimately released on Sept. 7), given that police didn’t follow normal guidelines in their Feb. 5, 2018, attempted-arrest-turned-chaotic-shootout.
So, why did six media outlets — which normally compete against each other — come together to fight for a couple of autopsy reports? Because they all share a common belief that the public — you! — have a right to know what your government is up to. Under Bux (who has since retired, and was succeeded by Dr. Leon Kelly), the coroner’s office routinely denied access to autopsy reports, which the law says are public records. If they hadn’t fought for those records, the county government might have started withholding all or most autopsy reports, along with other public records.
What government wants to answer to the public if it doesn’t have to? And if the media doesn’t fight the county, who’s going to? Ask yourself: Do you have $30,000 to throw at a public records lawsuit?
For most folks, that’s a solid “no.” And while TV shows and movies might portray “The Media” as some flush institution, the truth is, across the country, local media outlets are struggling financially. These cases are hard for any one local organization to finance.
And that’s why our Colorado Springs Press Association is so important. The Indy and the Gazette were first to contact Denver First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg and agree to take on the case. But after members of the local press association (including the Business Journal) knew about it, colleagues were quick to jump in and share the cost. That’s how we won this fight: Together.
We at the Colorado Springs Press Association hope local and state governments take notice. Media outlets are willing to cooperate and pool resources to fight for the public’s right to know. And we hope you, dear readers, see that — despite attacks on the media from high places, despite shrinking budgets and contracting newsrooms — your local media are still serving as a guard against governmental power.
It’s our job.
— J. Adrian Stanley, Indy news editor and vice president of the Colorado Springs Press Association