Photo Credit: Jeff Parker from Florida Today
Over the years, we’ve filed many Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests to get to the bottom of various topics. On average, we file 2-3 requests with local agencies every month. Are you aware that this option is available to you, too? Under the law, it’s your right to ask questions of your government and ask them to produce public records for you to review. After all, they use your tax money to do their business!
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has a guide about open meetings and open records that is very helpful. They define public records as:
“…all writings, made, maintained or kept by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision, for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule or involving the receipt or expenditure of public funds.”
Local agencies in the Pikes Peak region all have websites where CORA information can be requested.
Here is the process we follow to file CORA requests.
- First, we have found it helpful to create a template that we can use for any of those websites. That template for Colorado can be found here. We fill out the information and what records we are specifically wanting.
- Next, we copy the text from the completed template into the, “description,” box of the website for the relevant government agency.
- Then, we submit the CORA.
Those government agencies have three working days —by law— to respond to a CORA request. If the request includes a lot of information, it’s not unusual for the agency to request an additional seven working days to complete the request. The requested government documents may include such things as elected government officials’ or government employees’ email records, text messages, voice mails, invoices for purchases, or government contracts.
Because we have had a lot of experience with filing CORA requests —and because each of you have the right and ability to file CORA requests on your own— we wanted to share with you our “report card” on each of the local governments that we have filed CORA requests with.
Some are very easy to work with, but some are not. Our comments are based on 4 years of experience with the 3 agencies we most commonly deal with: El Paso County, the City of Colorado Springs, and Colorado Springs Utilities.
How do each of your local government agencies rank when it comes to the process of filing a CORA from start to finish?
El Paso County
As of this date, Michael Madsen is the El Paso County Public Information Officer. He’s always pleasant and polite.
Recently, the county started allowing online requests for CORAs. It’s easy to use.
The cost for a county CORA is steep. They give the first hour of records retrieval time free, but every hour after that is $33.58/hour. What a random price tag, right? Take a look at this recent invoice. For this particular CORA, we only asked for documents —no emails or other communications. Still, it was over $400. How is the average citizen supposed to pay for that?
As far as transparency at the county, one would expect that a fiscally conservative group such as ourselves, would be able to easily obtain necessary documents from a county that is run 100% by self-described conservative representation. That’s not the case. Sadly, we have had significant challenges getting the county to release what we would consider information that is relevant to the public. They withhold some documents to take out key details. We’ve asked private attorneys to intervene on our behalf on several occasions. We’ve even sued the county after they destroyed records we were seeking.
El Paso County has no option for a person to pay CORA fees online. Instead, we must mail a check, and the county won’t start working on a CORA until they receive at least half of the first payment. It’s very inconvenient for citizens. Once the payment is received, in almost every CORA we’ve requested, the county has asked for an extension of 7 working days. At the end of that 7 days, they provide a final invoice, and will not release the CORA response until they receive the final payment.
El Paso County Rating
- Courtesy- A
- Website- A
- Speed- B-
- Cost- D
- Transparency- D
- Payment method efficiency- F
City of Colorado Springs
As of this date, Vanessa Zink is the City of Colorado Springs Public Information Officer. Overall, the City of Colorado Springs has been relatively easy to work with over the years. We’ve had only a few roadblocks, and have been able to resolve most of them. We’ve had a couple of occasions where they refused to hand records over or have redacted records heavily, and we’ve had to ask attorneys to intervene on our behalf.
Here’s their website.
The cost for a City of Colorado Springs CORA record retrieval is $30 per hour with the first 2 hours being free.
The city always upholds the requirement timeframe for response, and are good at communicating information and asking questions.
When the CORA is complete, we call in and give a credit card number over the phone, and they send a receipt by email. It’s efficient and easy. We’ve paid a good amount for some City CORA requests, but we feel that in most instances they are fair and don’t inflate the cost.
The City of Colorado Springs Rating
- Courtesy- A
- Website- A
- Speed- A
- Cost- B
- Transparency- B
- Payment method efficiency- A
Colorado Springs Utilities
Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) is our least favorite agency for CORA requests, mainly because their public information officer is a nameless and faceless “person.” We address our CORA requests to “whom it may concern.”
Here is their website.
CSU is slow to complete requests. Recently, they took 28 days to return a CORA response, and blamed the December windstorm for their violation of the lawful timeframe for a response.
They charge $30 per hour to collect records, with the first 2 hours being free.
CSU lacks transparency. We recently asked some questions about the new broadband infrastructure they are creating —which taxpayers and ratepayers will be on the hook for. In emails from a previous CORA response, CSU had touted survey results from residents and businesses as a reason to proceed with the broadband infrastructure. When we asked for the survey results that supported their decision to proceed with the program, they redacted all of the relevant survey information. Then they charged us $450 for the information! Our money went to pay someone to black out information from public documents, in order to keep citizens from seeing survey results. This is definitely not in the spirit of open records!
We’re right in the middle of fighting this battle for you. You deserve to know!
The only way to pay for a CSU CORA is through Paypal, which is not convenient for everyone. Also, it seems like a strange way for a government agency to accept money from taxpayers and ratepayers.
Are there other local agencies that fall under freedom of information laws?
Yes! You can CORA the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership, all of the public-school districts, and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, to name a few. If your tax dollars support it directly, you can request the records. There are some things that aren’t releasable, such as employment records, but most of the information that is out there is fair game.
Our hope is that you’ll seek out information when something comes up in your neighborhood. If you’d like to pitch in and help us with our CORA budget, we’d appreciate it. Here’s our link for donations.
If you have questions when filling out your own CORAs, drop us a line here. We would be happy to answer your questions, and to publish results you receive from your own CORA filings.