Thursday, November 16, 2000
Steamboat Springs As a recent Associated Press Freedom of Information Project in Colorado showed, not all government agencies are willing to hand over public records.
In Routt County, the Steamboat Today reporters who participated in The AP's project had varying degrees of difficulty getting the documents they requested.
From July 11 through mid-October, more than three dozen Colorado newspapers, from The Denver Post to Steamboat Today, and The Associated Press, visited all 63 counties to see how accessible public records were.
Reporters asked for six bedrock public documents: the superintendent's contract; police incident reports; a jail roster; the mayor's travel expenses; a restaurant health inspection; and a list of people charged with a crime.
Plenty of government records, such as police investigations, are not public, but the newspapers didn't ask for any of those.
In general, the local results mirrored statewide findings. The Routt County Health Department and the Steamboat School District were the most willing to produce requested records, while law enforcement agencies were more skeptical of the requests.
For the most part, reporters found that identifying themselves as journalists increased their chances of getting the records within the 72-hour time limit allotted to the agencies by state law.
"Her attitude completely changed when she heard I was a reporter and she was very willing to let me see the records," wrote Joleen Fuller, who was assigned to get jail records and crime records from the sheriff's office. Fuller was an 18-year-old Steamboat Today intern last summer.
Sheriff John Warner said that because Fuller looked young, department officials were unsure of her intentions. Typically, law enforcement officers have more leeway than other government officials when it comes to handing out public records.
"We have to think of the well-being of the victim first in any case and the protection of the victim's rights," the sheriff said.
Local police and sheriff's departments must protect life and property, said Suzanne Mencer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, even if that means occasionally withholding information that the law says is public.
''It's a tightrope that law enforcement has always walked,'' Mencer said. ''It's a dilemma. Everyone wants to give the public as much information as possible, because they deserve that, but you also need to protect people if possible.''
The Colorado Department of Public Safety oversees the Colorado State Patrol, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and other agencies.
Warner said the sheriff's office gives citizens, including Steamboat Today reporters, information every day and that the incident with Fuller, who did receive the requested information within 72 hours, was held up mostly because deputies were taken aback by her age.
Today reporter John Russell, who asked Steamboat Springs police for incident reports of apparent burglaries in downtown Steamboat in the past six months, also experienced some delays, though his request also was processed within 72 hours.
The difficulties, Russell wrote, came about because of a new computer system at the police department.
"We weigh the public's right to know against a person's privacy in some cases," said George Watts, the records supervisor at the Steamboat Police Department. "Handing over the burglary statistics, however, isn't one of those cases."
The Routt County Department of Environmental Health was quick to hand over its files on a local restaurant's health records to Steamboat Today intern Larissa Keever.
Keever was promptly given the information and encouraged to learn more about the process.
Michael Zopf, the director of the department, said that they always give out that sort of information but want to know what it will be used for.
"It's kind of rare that somebody comes in and asks for a record," he said. "We do know these are public records, but we're wary of someone coming in and possibly using them in a manner that might be misunderstood."
Zopf said he likes to go over the report with the person who requests the material to make sure he or she knows exactly what it means.
The school district also was quick to respond to the records request, giving Fuller information on the superintendent's salary without a moment's hesitation.
"I would want to know who is asking for the records and what they would be using the information for," said school district Finance Director Dale Mellor.
Reporter Doug Crowl had some trouble getting information on the City Council president's travel and entertainment expenses, mostly because the records were difficult for the City Clerk's staff to find.
Crowl reported that City Clerk Julie Jordan-Struble wrote him a letter explaining that there is no specific file containing all of the requested information.
Within 72 hours, however, the clerk's office had the information and told Crowl he could come to City Hall and look at the files.
Staff assistant Stephanie Jalack said most of the time the city staff is able to find the information requested in less than 72 hours.
In some cases, however, those records are not all in the same place and take more time to find.
To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org