Editor’s column: Why we fight for open records
Carolyn Sackariason, the host of Aspen Public Radio’s “Valley Roundup,” asked me a few weeks ago on the show if readers needed to know the details of Carbondale’s first murder in 12 years.
The Post Independent had gone to court to unseal the arrest affidavit in the case, which had a number of unusual aspects, including:
• The case didn’t start as a homicide investigation. The defendant, Arturo Navarrete-Portillo, had crashed his SUV into a cattle truck on Feb. 16, and told a life flight crew a few hours later that he had killed his wife just before the accident.
• It took police a few more hours to find the apartment in which Maria Carminda Portillo-Amaya had been killed.
• Navarrete-Portillo had remained in protective custody without being charged for two weeks until he was well enough to leave the hospital.
• His passport was found in a dumpster, tossed by the crew that cleaned the apartment where the killing occurred.
All of those factors raise questions related to public safety and, perhaps, the probability of a conviction. They are matters of clear public interest.
Sackariason’s question was tied to the fact that the affidavit, successfully unsealed, contained numerous gory details, not the least of which was that the killer used a machete.
Did the public need to know that?
My response is that the public needs to know how its police conduct themselves and what’s going on in its courts.
“We don’t want a precedent where we lazily just let documents remain under seal, because that invites abuses,” I said on the show. If we don’t question secrecy, “instead of there being a presumption of openness, which is the law and which is the Constitution, there is an assumption that we can keep things private.”
As a society, we want these documents made public. We do not want police to be able to arrest our neighbor, our child, our friend — or us — and keep the reasons secret. We do not want city councils to issue contracts in private. We do not want county and state agencies buying rights of way, deciding on major projects or issuing policies without the opportunity for scrutiny.
That simply is not the way we conduct business in a free society.
The Post Independent approaches these questions of openness in government with the viewpoint that taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent and how their employees conduct themselves. In the criminal justice system, our employees include police, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, bailiffs, translators and judges. We pay for the whole process, and we pay these folks to act as our agents.
In fact, everyone in government is our employee; to fulfill our responsibility as their bosses, we must ensure that they are accountable.
Average citizens don’t have a lot of time to press these issues, so journalists really do see it as our responsibility.
Throughout my career, I have battled with officials who behave as if they don’t like open meetings and open records laws. I find this particularly ironic among law and court officers who resist disclosure that clearly is required under the law. I simply think that law enforcers don’t get to choose which laws they follow.
All states and the federal government have so-called sunshine laws that require open meetings and presume that public documents are just that — available to the public.
Colorado’s open records laws are the weakest I’ve encountered in my journalism career that spans six states. This is particularly true regarding criminal cases, in which law enforcement agencies have broad discretion in deeming documents to be investigative records whose release would be detrimental to the public. Still, with a couple of hard exemptions written into state law, such as the name of sex crime victims always being secret, almost all of the information used to charge someone with a crime eventually becomes open, including arrest affidavits.
We don’t know what’s being kept secret, and seeking public records helps pull the veil back on at least some public conduct. The closer we can get to original documents, the closer we get to the truth. Summaries and news releases spin and sanitize information. We don’t know what’s being hidden without digging, and even then, we don’t know what’s never put in the record.
So, because we wonder about accountability of the Colorado High School Activities Association, we are pressing it for records of its spending — some of the only information that CHSAA is required to provide. (It says it’s not even required, for example, to tell the public how many high school sports programs it has placed on restriction and for what reasons.)
So we ask for the names of people killed in traffic accidents and the hundreds of pages of documents generated in the investigation of Garfield County deputies’ shooting of Brian Fritze on Interstate 70.
We often don’t make friends doing this, and the findings are often uninteresting or unpleasant, but we will press the public’s right to know.
No one else will. If we don’t, our free society is less open and our employees are less accountable.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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