By Chuck Brackney
Colorado has in place a number of mechanisms that seek to ensure the public has access to the workings of its state government. For example, the GAVEL amendment to the state constitution requires that every bill introduced in the General Assembly have a hearing and that party caucus meetings be open to the public. Two laws in particular exemplify this focus on open government.
Colorado Sunshine Act
The first is the “Colorado Sunshine Act of 1972”, §24-6-101, et seq., in which the General Assembly declares that “it is the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.” The open meetings law applies to “state public bodies,” a term that is broadly defined to include any board, committee, commission, or other advisory, policy-making, or formally constituted body of the General Assembly — or any other state agency or authority.
But the open meetings requirement extends beyond meetings of legislative committees and caucuses. Whenever two or more legislators are together in one place, wherever that place may be, discussing public business, it’s a meeting, and it must be open to the public. This means that the legislators must allow members of the public to listen to the conversation if there are members of the public present who ask to do so.
The law does not require a legislator to invite the public if she decides to have a dinner party with her legislative colleagues. So long as public business is not the central purpose of a social gathering, the open meetings law does not apply.
Notice to the public is also an essential element of government in the sunshine law. The General Assembly, as well as its committees and caucuses, must provide public notice of its meetings. And this notice must be “full and timely.”
The Sunshine Act also requires financial and other disclosures by public officials and candidates for public office, and includes the regulation of lobbyists to achieve “a more uniform application of the lobbying laws to witness testimony and to clarify the ability of the public to provide testimony to the general assembly and to state agencies.”
For more information, please see the earlier LegiSource article on open meetings.
Colorado Open Records Act
The second pillar supporting governmental transparency is the “Colorado Open Records Act”, §24-72-200.1, et seq., more commonly known as “CORA”. In CORA, the General Assembly declares that it is “the public policy of this state that all public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times” – except for a number of specific exceptions.
CORA creates a general presumption in favor of public access to government documents and relies on the notion that exceptions to CORA must be narrowly construed. There is no requirement that a person show a special interest in order to be permitted access to particular public records.
The definition of “public records” in CORA is quite expansive. It includes all writings made, maintained, or kept by a member of the General Assembly for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law. There are some exceptions, including communications that are personal in nature, confidential messages from a constituent about a matter relating to that constituent, and work product between a legislator and legislative staff, including documents relating to the drafting of bills by attorneys from the OLLS. However, as a general rule, a legislator should err on the side of considering all communications to be potentially releasable, including records kept on a private, non-General Assembly-owned computer.
CORA mandates a quick turnaround time for records requests. The law says that records must be made available for inspection within three business days after receipt of the request. This three-day period can be extended for an additional seven days in cases of extenuating circumstances, such as when a request arrives during the legislative session.
If you are a member of the General Assembly and you receive an open records request, please contact the OLLS. For more information on what to do if you are “CORA’d”, please see the previous LegiSource article on CORA.