A short time ago in a county very, very nearby, a group of small weekly newspapers launched an investigation into a land deal that the Jeffco empire presented as a routine open-space purchase.
That investigation involved a request for documents from Jefferson County under the Colorado Open Records Act. Because of the access that law guarantees, and thanks to the tireless work of a talented young reporter, Jeffco residents learned that $1.4 million in Open Space tax funds were actually spent to settle a lawsuit filed by Three Dinos, a development concern linked to political campaign contributors.
Yet, inevitably, the empire strikes back. A recent proposal by Jeffco public information officer (or should that be obstructionist?) Kathryn Heider would charge by the hour for filling open-records requests. In some situations — like the one above, for example — those charges could price weekly newspapers right out of the investigative-reporting market.
Jefferson County, with an annual budget of around $1 billion, has never been overly focused on open and stand-up government. Former county commissioners repeatedly violated the open meetings law. A former commissioner is the target of an ongoing state ethics investigation. Scandals, from the infamous Pinky-T affair to monkey business with microphones, were rampant over the years.
And now we have a proposal that could make it cost-prohibitive for our newspapers to have the level of access required to keep our public officials honest — or at least apologetic after the fact.
Heider said the idea of charging for the work entailed in filling information requests has been talked about at various times over the years. She was adamant that the county is simply trying to recover its costs, not impede citizens or the press from having access to information that is part of the public record.
What Heider failed to provide, however, was any logical or documented reason for pushing the charges at this time. She had no figures on what other local governments charge for access to records. She wouldn’t comment on the chilling effect such charges might have on a small newspaper fighting for financial survival. And she couldn’t seem to explain why, with open-records requests actually down in recent years, this move is suddenly necessary.
But Heider did seem fully aware that, with the Rocky Mountain News pushing up daisies and the Denver Post leaving Jeffco coverage to a journalistic experiment known as Your Hub, the Courier is the lone sentry keeping an eye on the Taj Mahal.
“We’re just trying to be as efficient and effective as we can with the taxpayers’ dollars,” Heider said.
Spoken like a true government spokeswoman. But if Heider’s proposal is approved by the county commissioners, you’ll need The Force to be with you to know what the Jeffco government is up to.
Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.