Celebrating Sunshine Week 2019


Know your rights: the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA)

What is the Colorado Open Records Act?

The Colorado Open Records Act is a collection of state statutes or laws that guarantee the public’s right to know what their government bodies and various officials record as public record. It applies to “the state, its agencies and institutions, cities, counties, towns, school districts, special districts, and housing authorities.” The law was first created in 1969 and allows Americans greater exercise of their First Amendment rights.
Before the law came into existence, those in charge of keeping these records had the ability to grant or deny access to public records, except when the public was positively forbidden access to these documents. In Colorado, the Colorado Sunshine Law legislates what records the public may access and how public meetings are to be conducted, State Statute (CRS) 24-6-402 enacted by the Colorado State Legislature also governs how these meetings are run.

Records covered
In Colorado Revised Statutes 24-72-202 (6)(a), “public records” are defined as “all writings, made…maintained…kept” or “held” by entities that are subject to CORA “for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule or involving the receipt or expenditure of public funds.”
Some records held by an agency subject to CORA might not, however, be available to the public under CORA. This is true if it was not made, kept or held by the agency in question for a government related function or for some official reason.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Sunshine Laws booklet states: “All “writings” made, maintained or kept by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule or involving the receipt or expenditure of public funds. Records of foundations of public institutions of higher education are public records with the exception of donors and donor information.
“Laws pertaining to police and court records are found in the Criminal Justice Records Act. “Writings” include photographs, tapes, recordings and digitally stored data, including electronic mail, and other documentary materials in addition to books, papers and maps, but do not include computer software.
“Voted ballots are available for public inspection but are subject to specific handling requirements.
“Criminal justice agencies shall maintain records of official actions and such records shall be open to inspection by any person and that all other records of criminal justice agencies in this state may be open for inspection,” (CRS 24-73-301+). Such information includes “arrests, indictments, or other formal filing of charges; agency taking action; date and place, action taken; name, birth date, last-known address,” and many other details.
 
Executive sessions
An executive session is a meeting where legislative bodies engage in executive business. Such business can consist in hiring or firing discussions, contract negotiations, or other important discussions centering on executive business. These meetings can be open door, meaning the public is allowed to attend, though usually they cannot participate. Where local bodies or smaller organizations are concerned, these sessions often are held behind closed doors, meaning the public is not allowed to attend and records for these meetings are restricted.
Executive sessions were developed to protect individual members of governing boards from public ire over positions taken and input provided by board members. In most governing bodies, it is useful for individual members to be able to freely speak their minds about sensitive matters without any worries they later will be targeted by the public. However, even though this need exists, the final results or decisions made by the board at large must always be open to public scrutiny.
Colorado law allows governing bodies to hold executive sessions (during special or regular meetings only, not work sessions) provided that a detailed explanation of the topic for executive session is first announced to the public. Legislative bodies and most government boards are usually required to convene an executive session by a two-thirds majority vote of the particular government body. No government organization subject to the open records laws should operate continuously under executive session.

Who can request records?
CORA statutes allow any person to inspect any public record at any reasonable time, in accordance with the statute, “All public records shall be open for inspection by any person.” This includes but is by no means limited to public employees, elected officials, corporations (for-profit and non-profit), and journalists.

Purpose for records request
No reason needs to be given for why any individual is requesting a given set of records. Nor is the custodian of the records allowed to ask said individual to provide a reason.

Use of public records obtained
There are some restrictions. Those requesting copies of criminal justice records cannot use the records to solicit business or to generate money. The names of juveniles cannot be used from law enforcement records.

Time allowed for response
Colorado law stipulates a three-day deadline to comply with CORA requests unless more time is needed to collect the documents. Officials have to request additional time.

If record access is denied
If access is denied to records requested, the one requesting the records must ask for an answer in writing explaining why the access was denied, and a response from the records custodian must be received within three working days. If the reason for denying the request is not sufficient, a request for inspection may be made to district court. Three days notice of filing such a request with the courts must be given to the records’ custodian. The custodian must prove that opening the records in question would be injurious to the public interest. If a court finds the document was withheld improperly, the custodian withholding the document is required to pay attorneys fees for those seeking access to the document.

To download a free copy of the Colorado Sunshine Laws for the public and for the press, go to www. http://coloradofoic.org/files/2013/12/CPA-Sunshine-Laws-Booklet_web.pdf

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