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House Bill 1296 ‘a lot of power to put in hands of record keepers’

Trish Zornio

There’s a new buzzword in Colorado politics: vexatious.

If that word wasn’t on your 2024 bingo card, join the club. Yet here we are, so let’s go down the rabbit hole of House Bill 1296, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, Matt Soper R-Delta, and Sen. Janice Marchman D-Loveland.

As defined in the bill summary, House BIll 1296 seeks to modify the Colorado Open Records Act to “lessen the burdens of responding to records requests for custodians of records” by making requests for public records more timely and restricting.

Among the most controversial aspects of the bill are allowing government agencies to take longer to respond to many CORA requests, change access to work calendars and personnel information and, you guessed it, assert the right to label some private citizens as “vexatious” to temporarily ban them from accessing public data lest they fight the label in court on their own dime.

Wait, you didn’t guess that last part? Neither did I.

Now, if your blood is boiling at the thought of finding more red tape in accessing public data and information, you’re not alone. As bipartisan as the bill might be, there’s equally or stronger bipartisan backlash, and for good reason.

The bill seeks to enact a series of regressive stipulations to CORA that could have powerful ramifications for journalists and other citizens alike. Plus, it’s a lot of power to put in the hands of record keepers.

Among the most vocal against the proposed legislation has been the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

CFOIC president Steve Zansberg, who has represented The Durango Herald and The Journal, wrote on its website: “It is sad that at a time when we are being bombarded with misinformation and disinformation, lawmakers are seeking to curtail the public’s right to receive accurate information, through public records, on a timely basis and without having to borrow funds to obtain them. Such steps backward should be vigorously opposed by all who believe in transparency and accountability.”

Zansberg is right.

Public records belong to us, the citizens, and accessing such public data and information should always be made easier, not harder. There are already many limitations on accessing sensitive personal information, lengthy delays, excessive fees and mountains of undefinable bureaucracy that prohibit easy access.

To say we don’t need more roadblocks is an understatement, and even if some feel a few bad apples are taking up too much employee time, perhaps the problem isn’t that people are requesting too much information, but rather that the government overall isn’t making enough information readily available.

Regrettably, I have much firsthand experience with the latter. On countless occasions, work has prompted me to ask questions of government officials and agencies regarding information not accessible without CORA requests.

It’s frustrating, or should I say vexatious?

So here’s my rebuttal to Kipp, Soper and Marchman: If you want to ease the supposed burden on government employees from people like me wanting to regularly access public data, then your solution ought to be to fund the enhancement of easy, free and digital public databases for all major government entities in Colorado rather than making it harder for us to get what should be rightfully ours.

Until state officials provide full transparency, Coloradans can, and likely should, remain at least partially skeptical of the system – and especially skeptical of those trying to make accessing it harder.

As they say, if there’s nothing to hide, you shouldn’t mind us looking.

Trish Zornio contributes to The Colorado Sun, a nonpartisan news organization based in Denver.