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County restricts access to public information

In what one county commissioner believes is an effort to thwart her from obtaining information about the government she oversees, a majority of her colleagues last week approved a measure to restrict access to public information.

The measure underscores an ongoing drama in county government with Commissioners Jeri Howells and Tom Huffman, who have been locked in an ongoing battle for more than a year.

Last week, commissioners -- who are charged with overseeing county government -- passed on a 3-2 vote a measure that requires a full vote of the board if one of them wants to review county government information that costs more than $100 worth of staff labor or out-of-pocket expenditures

Critics claim the move is part of Huffman's efforts to squelch Howells' investigation of the county's Information Technology Department. Howells has been calling for an independent audit of the department since last December, to determine whether a substantial increase in its budget is warranted.

"Don't ask me what's going on, but it's pretty strange and I've been a commissioner long enough to know," said Howells.

However, at last week's meeting, Huffman hotly denied that the measure would restrict his colleagues' or the public's access to information, arguing that Howells or anyone else can still pay for the information out of their own pockets. The county currently charges $1.25 a page, the maximum allowed by the state of Colorado.

Huffman argued the measure is intended to check the power of individual commissioners and protect taxpayer dollars.

"The state constitution gives no individual commissioner any authority," Huffman said. "It gives authority only to the board and that means a majority of the board."

Huffman vigorously denied that he's trying to throw a monkey wrench into Howell's inquiry.

"The exact same information that was available a month ago is available now. It's available to any county commissioner; it's available to any media entity. It's just that if you want county staff to do 14 hours of research and compile stuff, we're going to ask you to pay for it," Huffman said.

However, few Colorado counties have enacted similar policies. Representatives from Douglas, Adams, Teller and Arapahoe counties said they have no such restrictions.

"We don't even go there," says Boulder County spokesman Jim Burrus. "If a commissioner wants to know something, they just go and ask."

Jefferson County Commissioner Richard Sheehan said department heads there have the option of requesting the board's approval for requests that will take more than four to six hours of staff time.

The issue in El Paso County came before the board earlier this month but deadlocked, with commissioners Huffman and Wayne Williams voting for the measure and Howells and Jim Bensberg opposed. Back from medical leave last week, Chairman Chuck Brown broke the tie in favor of the new language.

Commissioner Williams said his vote was never tied to a particular colleague or interest group.

"I just think there needs to be a procedure in place," he said. "I don't agree with a philosophy that says an individual commissioner can theoretically spend millions of dollars."

Commissioner Jim Bensberg, who voted twice with Howells in opposing the policy, did not return repeated phone calls or e-mails. In the past, Bensberg has also refused interviews with the Independent.

Since the vote, an exasperated Howells says she's thrown up her hands.

"The Huff-man says no, he's just looking out for the taxpayer. I say, 'How ludicrous!'" Howells said. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do, is find out where hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are going into [the IT] department -- that's the reason I asked for an audit.

"In some ways it's just water under the bridge, because if I'm the only one upset about it and the taxpayers just think 'OK, whatever' then so be it."

-- John Dicker

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