Colorado proposal would reduce public records costs for media

As Colorado’s fall loomed in 2021, reporter Jesse Paul wanted to peek behind the curtain at state prisons, submitting a request for records regarding inmate deaths, injuries and staff violations – public records made available to ensure government transparency.

But then the bill came, and Paul, a journalist at The Colorado Suncheekily emailed its editors: “Is it cool, guys, if I drop $245,000 on this?”

In a concession many reporters are familiar with, Paul gutted his admittedly important request, leaving most of those government documents hidden from public view.

These kinds of financial hurdles are part of why Colorado state legislators are considering legislation that would grant media privileges when requesting public records, including lower fees and stricter deadlines for custodians. documents produce documents.

But the bill has sparked a ruckus on Twitter, with some fearing that favoring the news media is unfair, while others find troubling the mere idea that politicians define who is and who is not a journalist. .

Most states do not distinguish between the general public and media organizations, and the definition of news media in the Colorado bill would effectively exclude news startups in their first year of operation, which would increase their public records costs.

The proposal comes as some states push in the opposite direction. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking a program that could limit access to public records, and lawmakers across the country are trying to protect the disclosure of personal information for elected officials and public employees.

Colorado’s proposal has yet to be introduced, and it could change as the remaining issues are resolved, said Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen, the bill’s sponsor. Hansen, in defense of the definition, said growing news groups would still be able to submit claims and the temporarily higher cost would not be a “significant burden”.

Overall, the proposal is seen as a step in the right direction by media groups. It would require stricter retention of government email records, charge the media half the cost charged to the general public — capped at around $15 for every hour spent producing the records — and ensure that certain investigative reports on sexual harassment by elected officials are accessible to the public.

For Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and who helped draft the bill, said the proposal is not perfect but will solve the problem. A more robust solution, he said, would be better funding for governments to respond to requests for documents.

The cost of Paul’s quarter-million-dollar claim would likely still not be addressed by this bill, Roberts noted. These documents likely fall into a separate category for criminal records, and Roberts is still on a mission to deal with the prohibitive costs.

“There doesn’t seem to be the political will to just cut costs for everyone,” Roberts said.

Larry Ryckman, editor of The Colorado Sunsaid that while he had doubts about politicians defining what counts as news media, he was generally happy with any expansion of access to public records.

“A healthy democracy depends on a free press, that we will ask questions and dig and fact-check,” Ryckman said, “and we cannot hold government and government agencies and officials accountable without access to documents.”

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