State & Local Feature: Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition

Q & A with Jeff Roberts, executive director, CFOIC

What are the main open government challenges you are facing during the pandemic?

There have been a fair amount of things, all of which have been pretty typical of what’s going to around the country. Records request delays that are going beyond what the law states is a problem. There’s a general attitude of ‘we will get to it when we can get to it’ from government agencies. There’s also the issue of the cost of records. Requests for email records to show the government’s response to the pandemic in the early days has resulted in reporters being charged thousands of dollars. Colorado Public Radio just did a terrific story on this topic and they were charged $2,000 for the records. There’s also the issue of accessibility of meetings. It’s great that everyone is doing Zoom calls and some people being able to tune in than ordinarily would because of other commitments. However, it’s also hard for the public to be in the know of what’s going on and to actually participate in these meetings.

Why do you do what you do?

I used to be a reporter and editor at the Denver Post for years and had a passion for open records because as a data journalist these are tools you use all the time. You need the records to get the data you then analyze. At CFOI I have the opportunity to offer assistance to journalists and the public seeking records. We have handled more than 3,200 inquiries since I started this job in 2013 and the inquiries have grown each year. Last year, it was 300-plus, this year it will be 600-plus.

Who are your openness advocacy heroes?

Three members of the CFOIC board of directors: Tom Kelley, is a past president and has been fighting for open government causes in Colorado for more than 40 years. There’s also Steve Zansberg, the current president. Everything I know about running CFOIC I learned from Steve, and Marc Flink, who has also been on the board for several years..

Do you have an openness success story to share?

Last year, CFOIC helped passed a law that requires disclosure of police internal investigation records. It’s important that the public is aware and has a good understanding of disciplinary actions taken against law enforcement officers that are accused of wrongdoing. With the new law, now they can have access to the records.

Any records request tips or inspiration you would like to share?

Persistence is the number one thing. Knowledge of the law is also important. It’s the reason why we even exist, to help people understand records laws and use that knowledge to demand (or defend their right to) information that belongs to them anyway.

What does open government mean to you?

It’s a fundamental principle of our American democracy. It’s the idea that for our democracy to work like it’s supposed to, people need information about their government. It’s the tool to hold the government accountable.

What sets CFOIC apart?

We are one of the most active organizations in this space. I am very proud of the fact that we are an everyday resource for journalists and everyone interested in obtaining information to help monitor what the government is doing, and we take this into account when we need to be advocates for them if they run into challenges with getting the records.

Best career advice you’ve ever received?

I had a mentor in my early days at The Denver Post who had a screensaver on his computer that said: “What does it mean?” What does a story mean to the audience? That approach guides my work to this day – helping people understand what the information they are requesting about government means to them because it ultimately doesn’t matter why they want the records, they are entitled it.