If you want to be an informed citizen but can’t go to all the public meetings and track down all the public documents, you’ll be happy to know the Colorado legislature has taken a step that will help you. On the last day of the 2017 session, lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill that strengthens the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). Originally passed in 1968 it allows any person to request public records. The requester is not required to state a purpose, even if asked.
Senate Bill 17-040
The new legislation addresses how CORA records are provided—it adds the stipulation that the requested records must be provided in a searchable or sortable format if the records are maintained that way. The need to update the law became clear after the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper requested compensation information from Colorado State University to write an article comparing pay raises in different staff positions. Instead of providing access to the electronic database, the university provided 145 photographed images from it. The newspaper then spent several weeks re-building the database from these images so they could do comparisons and analysis.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant
We applaud the bipartisan legislators who recognized the need for this update to CORA. A healthy democracy depends on the free flow of information—or as stated in the new Washington Post motto, “Democracy dies in darkness.”
With government growing in complexity and the number of journalists declining, citizen involvement is as important as it has ever been. However, it’s impossible for citizens to attend all the meetings and read all the documents. Journalists do attend the meetings, and now this valuable tool has been strengthened to allow access to data that otherwise might have been hidden.
Front Porch CORA Requests
The Front Porch has regularly used CORA to obtain information, including for recent articles on A Line train horns, a sound wall on the proposed extension of Martin Luther King Blvd., and contaminated fill material used in Stapleton-Aurora development.
Our unsuccessful efforts to get public information
Unfortunately, obtaining materials produced under a public/private partnership has not always been a straightforward process. On several occasions, Stapleton developer Forest City has presented material to the Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) and its committees, but has been unwilling to release it to the Front Porch.
A few years ago, during the planning for the 26th Ave. Park in the Stapleton Aurora development, the Front Porch requested the color plans shown by Forest City at a public meeting of the Citizens Advisory Board highlighting the features of that long-awaited park. Our request for the plans (which were produced using funds from taxpayer financing for the development) was denied. In order to share the information with the public, we used the black and white line drawing Forest City had submitted to Aurora’s planning department and spent hours recreating a color version that highlighted the various features of the park.
Such withholding of public information from the community is a disservice to residents whose tax money is paying for the development. These meetings, convened to discuss public business, are defined as “public” under Colorado’s Sunshine Laws*—but if the materials from the meeting are withheld from the press, that information will be known only to those in the room. And here’s additional clarification that these meetings are subject to CORA: The Stapleton Development Corporation (SDC) was found in a 2000 lawsuit brought by The Denver Post to be subject to CORA since it serves as an instrument of the City to oversee the development of Stapleton. CAB and its committees are organizationally under SDC and report to SDC.
CORA Request for Stapleton Development information
This past April, Forest City refused, with no reason given (despite multiple requests), to share graphics for the Central Park Station transit-oriented development that were shown at a Citizens Advisory Board meeting. In this case, the Front Porch followed up with a CORA request to the Stapleton Development Corporation (SDC).
In response, SDC staff said at the April SDC meeting they could not provide the requested information because “SDC did not make the presentation and the presentation was not distributed.” The SDC president, the SDC board members who spoke, and the city’s representative all sided with Forest City’s argument that it was appropriate to withhold the information because it was still a concept, not a final plan. The co-chair of the Citizen’s Advisory Board, however, did speak out for the community, saying he supported the CORA request. He added that he believes the public understands what “preliminary” or concept plans are and it made him uneasy that SDC board members (people appointed to represent the community) just left the decision in Forest City’s hands.
How we finally got information
About five weeks after the SDC meeting, the Front Porch saw the story in The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal. We again requested the material and got what the other papers had. We give Forest City full credit for successfully creating a neighborhood of beautiful homes and parks that residents love. But, we think withholding information presented at a public meeting is a disservice to the community, particularly since we routinely give Forest City articles about Stapleton development for fact-checking prior to publication. And we were disappointed that SDC did not support the community’s right to see what was presented at public meetings. (Forest City, SDC staff and board chair, and CAB co-chair were all given a copy of this editorial for fact-checking prior to publication with an offer to run a response from any of them.)
The Front Porch will continue to use CORA
The implication of the SDC Board’s response to our CORA request is that the public should learn about a development proposal only after it becomes final. This turns the development review process on its head. The purpose of such a process is precisely to obtain public input. And in the case of Stapleton, with the land owned by Denver (i.e., the citizens), efforts to withhold information presented at public meetings are even less justifiable.
The approaching build-out of Stapleton does not mean the need for public information is over. Many site planning and governance issues remain. They include Forest City performance on its affordable housing obligations, completion of key infrastructure, debt levels and repayment schedule, and relations between the special district that collects tax for Stapleton development and the special district that uses the tax revenue for development.
If anything, a tool like CORA is especially important in a place like Stapleton that has a very complex public/private development arrangement. We encourage members of the public to take advantage of their rights under CORA and Colorado’s Sunshine Law.*
Information about these laws and how to file a CORA request can be found at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition web site (coloradofoic.org).
*Colorado’s Sunshine Law states that all meetings of “public bodies” convened to discuss public business must be open to the public. Meetings are defined as two or more members of state entities such as the General Assembly, or three or more members of local public bodies such as city councils.