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Colorado open records law on way to modernization

DENVER -- Colorado lawmakers are attempting to modernize the way citizens get access to public records, but some other agencies are still attempting to derail the efforts.

In a 4-1 vote, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs passed a transparency bill Wednesday evening that calls on government agencies to start providing public records in a digitized format when available.

The behind-the-scenes battle over government transparency has been raging since the summer, but a Senate hearing on the proposed so-called data bill was held Wednesday at the Capitol.

Media groups, including KDVR and KWGN, politicians, and representatives of public employees have been meeting about ways to improve the Colorado Open Records Act.

One consensus: It was a good idea to require government agencies to start providing digital or computer records if they are available as opposed to printing off a bunch of paper.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers have used government databases to expose flaws in the way Denver airport tower operators communicate dangerous wind conditions to pilots.

And, most recently, the number and location of high-risk dams that flunked their latest inspection.data

But the current public records law does not require taxpayer-funded agencies to hand out computerized, and easily searchable, information even if the agency stores it that way.

According to Senate sponsor John Kefalas, the ultimate goal of Senate Bill 40 is to make government more open and transparent and accountable.

“If you get into the weeds, it’s not a simple matter,” Kefalas said. "You’re trying to strike a balance between the need for the public to have access to these records as well as the need for custodians, the government, to protect certain kinds of information.”

At a Senate hearing Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers on the Veterans' Affairs Committee heard testimony that it was time to bring the Open Records Act into the modern age from prominent elected officials like Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

“This bill makes it easier for Coloradans to get the documents in a format that they can use,” said Williams. “It does it while providing protections for information that should not be disclosed.”

The proposed bill states: “If public records are stored as structured data … the custodian of the public records to provide an accurate copy of the public records in a structured data format.”

Proponents say the change could save time, paper and taxpayer money, but the Senate panel had a roomful of opponents. Those groups were mostly utility districts and smaller government agencies.

Richard Orf of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado spoke in opposition of the bill.

"Being compelled to release data in technical formats carries the risk of accidentally disclosing the private data I mentioned before, which we're liable as custodians to keep confidential," he told the committee.

He also shared concerns from his association that not all agencies could staff a technically oriented person to properly fulfill electronics records requests.

After several hours of testimony, the committee passed the proposed bill along to the Appropriations Committee even though Problem Solvers could find no cost associated to the government to make these computer records changes.

The lone no vote came from State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.