Good Intentions Breed Bad Potential Outcomes in Colorado…

Freshman Rep. Brittany Pettersen’s House Bill 1041 (pdf) seeks to heighten public accountability by updating the Colorado Open Records Act. Her measure would prevent officials from requiring that people who ask for public documents review them in person before receiving copies. It was a legislative update activists applauded, until they read the bill, which they now decry as being ambiguously worded and ripe for abuse.

“It’s been a frustrating experience, even if it’s all part of the process,” said Pettersen. “It’s unfortunate, I think, on one level, because lawmakers in the future may be less willing to take up issues related to the Open Records Act and, on another, because the activists are right to see larger issues that need addressing.”

Marilyn Marks, founder of Aspen-based Citizen Center and a lightning-rod figure for controversy tied to records access, originally supported Petterson’s effort but is now leading the charge against it. In a letter to the editor published in the The Colorado Statesman last week, Marks called Pettersen “petulant” for not meeting with activists, and called House Bill 1041 an “anti-transparency bill.” She believes lobbyists have worked to include language in the bill that would make it possible for obstructionist records custodians to charge high fees to records seekers and shut down meaningful document review.

Veterans of battles over the Open Records Act are unsurprised by the suspicions rising up around the bill in the activist community.

Steve Zansberg, a top media attorney in the state and one of the architects of the bill, said it makes sense that government accountability champions like Marks guard their right to access vigilantly and are wary of any proposed changes to records laws — even changes they may have initially supported.

“I understand folks who have had bad experiences with records custodians and so come to the bill with suspicions. They see vague language and they view that vagueness as a ‘trap for the unwary,’” he said. “But all language is susceptible to abuse. No legislation will work 100 percent of the time to protect against bad faith.”

Katie Fleming, Colorado associate director of government accountability group Common Cause, was also not surprised by the heat the bill has drawn.

“The Open Records Act is one of the most effective ways the public has to hold officials accountable and to make sure laws are working. It’s just going to generate lots of interest every time you talk about it,” she said.

Read more here.

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