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KSJD Local Newscast - June 28, 2024

With city staff facing a continuing deluge of open-records requests, the Cortez City Council voted 6 to 1 at its meeting July 25 to raise the hourly fee that is charged for fulfilling such requests.

As of July 1, the fee will go up to $41.37 per hour, the maximum allowable, from the current $33.58.

The first hour is free, so many people with simple requests are charged nothing.

However, a number of government entities are struggling with how to cope with large volumes of requests made under CORA, the Colorado Open Records Act.

At the March 19 county-commission meeting, Chairman Jim Candelaria said such requests “take a ton of staff time” and that the issue is “kind of a big deal to all counties.”

Cortez City Manager Drew Sanders told KSJD in a phone interview that the city had received 16 CORA requests the previous day. CORA requests first go to the city clerk, he explained. If a request is simple and can be handled by the clerk’s office, that’s how it’s done.

“We get a lot of those requests that are generally short and relatively small – maybe for a plat, or some piece of information,” he said.

If a CORA request is more complicated, such as a request for numerous emails, it moves on to city attorney Patrick Coleman. “The attorney and/or his paralegal have to go through emails to see if there are any that involve confidential matters or attorney-client privilege,” Sander said.

To sort through emails to find which ones relate to a topic that is the subject of a request, the attorney sends the request to the city’s IT person, who sets up a computer search, Sanders said.

All of this takes time.

“All these people have regular jobs to do,” Sanders said. “The IT person makes sure our system is running right – manages our entire network. It takes away from our normal duties. We all have full-time-plus jobs.

“If someone makes a request that involves a thousand documents, there’s only so much you can do in an hour’s time [which would be free of charge].”

The maximum fee for time spent handling CORA requests is set by the state every five years and was recently raised to $41.37. Government entities are not required to charge the maximum – they can set the fee at a lower amount.

Council member Dennis Spruell, who cast the dissenting vote at the July 25 meeting, said he does not want the city to be making money from such fees.

“We have various staff involved in retrieving and reviewing the records requested,” Coleman replied. He added, “I have a half-time paralegal in my office. She and I review a lot of this stuff. It’s difficult to say how much it costs us.

“I make more than $41 an hour. Right now we get $33.58 whether I reviewed it all, or the clerk or my paralegal. It’s difficult to put an exact number on it.

“I would hesitate to say we are making money because it can be very time-consuming reviewing every record to make sure we are not releasing things the statute does not allow or that are subject to privilege and confidentiality rules.”

Mayor Rachel Medina said if someone requests more than 100,000 e-mails, that is a huge burden to staff and takes time away from their regular duties.

Speaking at different public-comment periods at the meeting, Charles Jeter, a California resident who said he has interests in the local area, said the costs are already onerous. Jeter has filed numerous open-records requests with the city.

For instance, on May 27 he filed a request seeking “metadata relating to emails sent To, From, CC, or BCC the following accounts relating to emails from Jan. 1 2007 to present day sent To, From, CC, or BCC the following accounts,” after which he listed 11 email accounts, most of which did not belong to city staff members. In his request, he said he wasn’t seeking the contents of each email but wanted the “to” and “from” addresses, cc and bcc addresses, time, date, and subject of each email from the beginning of 2007 to the present day.

Jeter told the council he is a whistleblower who is doing an investigation and that people give him money to help with the costs of his requests. He said the council shouldn’t charge for the release of information that is “in the public interest.”

He said the city of Fort Collins automatically posts their emails online except for those that are specifically private.

Coleman responded that he had spoken with the records clerk for Fort Collins. “They don’t put every email out, it’s the council emails,” he said.

Fort Collins has a policy of retaining its emails for only two years, but Cortez doesn’t have such a policy and has many old emails it hasn’t deleted, Coleman said. “We get requests asking for every email from every councilperson from January 1 of 2000 or the beginning of time – I can show you several of them,” he said.

Coleman said the state mandates only a 45-day retention period. “We go back much further and that’s one of the problems with these voluminous requests.”

Fort Collins has an attorney who works almost full-time reviewing CORA requests, as well as a full-time records custodian in the clerk’s office, Coleman said. In addition, they have a filter that automatically removes privileged or confidential emails before they are posted.

“It’s not as simple as, all your emails get posted,” Coleman said.

Sanders agreed that Cortez can’t be expected to do what Fort Collins is doing. “ We don’t have the resources – we can hardly afford the attorney we have,” he said in the interview with KSJD.

Sanders said although CORA requests have been made of the city for years, the onslaught of requests started in October 2023, after the council voted not to approve a change in zoning that would have established an industrial zone for the Independent Log Company at the trailhead of the Carpenter Natural Area on Cortez’s north side. (The requests aren’t from the company’s owners.)

“After that we’ve been bombarded,” Sanders said.

He said he appreciates the public’s need to stay informed about what government entities are doing.

“It’s public information and they should be able to get it,” Sanders said. “It’s just the wide net [that causes problems] – someone requesting any and all emails for all time for all of council. You’re talking hundreds of thousands of documents.

“We have to give them an estimate of the cost and have them pay a certain amount before we turn it over, but generally at that point we have already done a lot of work. Then sometimes people say no and walk away.”

In one case, he said, a request was for more than 100,000 documents and the charge was over $20,000. “I don’t know whether they paid it or not,” Sanders said. He is not directly involved in handling CORA requests.

“We want to be open and transparent,” he added, “but we have to balance that with making the city run.”

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Gail Binkly is a career journalist who has worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette and Cortez Journal, and was the editor of the Four Corners Free Press, based in Cortez.