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Transparency’s high fee 

Voice of Reason

How much would you be willing to pay to use something you’ve already bought?
It’s a strange question, but it seems some government entities are betting the answer is, “not much.”

A few weeks ago, we editorialized about the importance of open records. Tax payer-funded documents — whether they be emails from official accounts, arrest records, minutes from governmental proceedings or even copies of a municipality’s checkbook — are considered public domain, and you have the right to request access to and copies of them.

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 ’em, you get ’em.

But the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) both allow governmental agencies to charge for the release of those documents. The intention is to cover the researching and copying costs.

In Colorado Springs, the first two hours of research are free, then $20 per hour more, charged in 15-minute increments; the first 25 pages of a request are free, then 25 cents per page.

The Indy’s Pam Zubeck, in a somewhat ironic twist of CORA, obtained city statistics related to the frequency and cost of CORA requests. What she found was, in 2017 the city fielded 678 requests and, for 25 of those requests, it rang up $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 going to balance any budgets, it is, in many instances, coming out of civilian pocket books. Because many of the chart-topping requests were made by taxpayers like you.
Rarely, if ever, does a day go by when the Indy’s investigative reporters don’t have some story in the works that requires at least one records request. We estimate we file 150 CORAs and a couple of dozen FOIAs annually. 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. Either/or.

Case in point: Zubeck recently requested some basic data — for a story currently underway — from one of El Paso County’s largest departments. She received an estimated bill for $1,170. To be sure, 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 us 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 just an attempt to obscure data the county doesn’t want presented to the public. Even if it really is a $1,170 project — and there is absolutely no reason our particular one should be, we’re confident ­­— all that the El Paso County department’s absurd fee has done is cast a spotlight on a transparency problem.

Hiding behind the massive bill in an apparent effort to keep us from getting the information we requested rates undemocratic and inequitable. It’s ultimately preventing you, the constituents who pay the department’s bills, from getting the information you deserve — and actually own.

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