Columns & Op Ed Pieces by Aaron Harber
THE PEOPLE’S FIGHT FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT by Aaron Harber
A major battle plays out daily in Colorado as some of our elected and appointed officials — all of whom took a solemn oath to serve all Coloradans — do everything possible to frustrate disclosing information belonging to the people. These fights involve access to records concerning public policies created with taxpayer dollars.
As someone who has fought on multiple fronts for public access to records and deliberations, I continue to be astonished by how many government employees continue to make it difficult for journalists to do their jobs or for regular citizens to simply find out what is happening in their own communities.
While many officials tout their belief in “transparency,” their actions often belie their words. They hide and obfuscate — making decisions privately rather than publicly and making records difficult to obtain by delaying access, charging ludicrous amounts for copies, overly redacting information, and, in many cases, not providing the information at all.
They truly believe whatever they do is “right,” because they are convinced they know best what is in the public’s interest. They rationalize bad behavior due to their belief the ends (what they believe is a good outcome) justify the means (making it difficult for journalists and others to access what should be public information).
The current public records debate in Colorado is focused on how long government officials at all levels should retain their electronic records — primarily email correspondence and text messages. Current law generally allows each agency and political subdivision to set its own time period for when emails can be deleted. As a result, some officials are deleting their correspondence after just 30 days! This makes no sense at all and contributes only to greater distrust of government.
In the past, one could argue the cost of storing voluminous amounts of information was exorbitant and deletion of certain records made sense. As someone who worked in and is knowledgeable about the high technology arena, I can state, without any qualification, that the cost of electronic storage today is so low, an argument could be made that no deletions should ever occur.
In 1980, a gigabyte of computer storage on a hard drive could cost $1 million. Today that cost is 2 cents. The entire contents of the Library of Congress could now be stored on a device which costs only $500.
Bureaucrats who argue storing all emails indefinitely would make responding to Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests difficult are being disingenuous, at best. Today’s search tools allow a user to easily and quickly search and find whatever records are relevant to a request — often in a matter of seconds. Technology simply has rendered the excuses of uncooperative bureaucrats moot..
One reason to require all Colorado government agencies to maintain email and text correspondence and related records for at least five years is because it may take a few years before anyone even knows they need the information. A journalist or law enforcement investigation into activities or actions involving government agencies, especially where malfeasance is a possibility, may take several years to develop.
When legal processes are involved, it can be one to three years after an event before actual litigation commences and then another year or two before the discovery process (i.e., record acquisition) is completed. That means five years could go by before a case is complete. And if there are delays in responding by a government entity, the time periods can be much longer.
Another way some government agencies make it difficult for journalists and others to get information is by charging excessive amounts to honor what often are simple requests. Agencies are allowed to charge (e.g., $30 per hour) for the time their staff members spend responding to requests, some of which legitimately do require extensive research and the organization of information.
However, there have been instances where agencies have claimed a request will take days or even weeks to process. These agencies then calculate the cost of the request and inform the requesting party that thousands of dollars are needed for a search which actually could be completed in an hour or two.
Certainly, the time estimates can be reasonable when documents need to be gathered from disparate sources and have to be reviewed and redacted or even excluded for legitimate reasons (such as confidentiality) but some agencies abuse the process to cover up their own mistakes.
Government agencies also may try to provide requested information in a form or format which is less helpful and, at times, even unusable. In my first open records case (I was represented at the time by future Colorado Attorney General and U.S. Senator, Ken Salazar), I requested records from a state government office in electronic form.
The office agreed the information I requested was public but wanted to provide the information on paper. This would result in the printing of tens of thousands of pages of information which would be next to impossible to organize or analyze. It also would be an environmental disaster. Although I eventually won the case, by the time I got the data, it no longer was helpful.
Fortunately, CORA was amended in 2017 so government agencies now are required to provide requested information in the most convenient and least expensive form for both the government agency and the requesting party. In the case I just cited, it was obvious providing the requested records in electronic form was the easiest path for the agency and was the most useful to the requesting party.
In a matter involving open meetings under the Colorado Sunshine Law, I informed a municipality it was against Colorado law for its governing board to meet in sessions about which citizens were given very limited notice and during which decisions were made but were not truly in public view or even in view of the Press covering the municipality.
Only because I involved legal counsel did the municipality ultimately agreed to institute some reforms. Nevertheless, during the entire duration of the matter, it believed what it was doing was appropriate even though few knew the people’s business was being conducted behind the equivalent of partially closed doors.
Today, Coloradans who hire an attorney to assist them cannot recover those costs unless they prevail in court. The law should be modified so those costs are recoverable even if the issue does not even go to court. That would create an incentive for government agencies to be more cooperative.
This is important because, in some cases, government agencies use the length and cost of the process to stall providing the requested information. In these instances, the officials know they ultimately are likely to have to provide the information but, by forcing the requesting party to go through the legal process, they are confident the information will be useless by the time it is provided.
In the first case in which I was forced to be a party after making an open records request, the government entity involved went to court to fight the request knowing it would lose but also knowing the delay caused by the legal process would result in my getting the requested information too late to be used effectively. So, although I won the case, the agency accomplished its goal of “running out the clock” (as well as costing me money).
To address these issues, there should be an ombudsman who can quickly size up situations and mediate a final arrangements on the parties in a short time frame (e.g., within three business days of a request). Today, it takes the agreement of all the parties for mediation to occur so either party can now prevent it from happening. If the dispute were submitted to an ombudsman and then goes to court, the ombudsman’s report should be available to the judge in the case so as to expedite a decision. Both the ombudsman and court processes should be fast-tracked in the law so a decision is issued within a calendar week of a request.
While Coloradans’ interests in Open Government are led by organizations such as the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (ColoradoFOIC.org), it is up to Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado General Assembly to make our state’s commitment to Open Records and Open Meetings a full-fledged reality.
Most importantly, it is time we make certain we elect public officials who not only say they believe in transparency but have plans to proactively make information accessible. If we do that, we will have fewer barriers being erected to having access to public records and meetings. Hopefully our elected leaders — whose members are subject to open records and open meeting sunshine laws — will do the right thing and make these laws work the way they were originally intended.
I was horrified by the events of April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School. I’ve followed the school’s progress and incredible community ever since as it used that terrible event to teach lessons which benefitted the entire nation.
I was honored to host a panel at the Denver Film Festival about the extraordinary documentary, “We Are Columbine,” directed and produced by Laura Farber, who was a freshman at the time of the attack. That discussion resulted in a television series: “Columbine: 20 Years Later” (www.HarberTV.com/Columbine).
The panel also featured the fantastic Frank DeAngelis, the former Columbine High School Principal and attack Survivor; Rebecca Wilson Kase, a Psychotherapist and insightful Trauma Expert; Rick Kaufman, the former Jeffco Public Schools Crisis Response Team leader who has helped schools across the nation; and, Kiki Leyba, an amazing Columbine High School Teacher and Survivor who continues teaching at Columbine and who helped thousands by sharing personal details most of us would hide.
So, I took great interest when proposals surfaced to tear down the existing Columbine High School and build a new one in its place at a cost which could exceed $70 million.
The argument, as posed by Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass, is Columbine has become a bizarre obsession for thousands of individuals and that, by tearing down the existing building — which Glass admits is “one of the safest in the world” — this somehow would solve the problem of people being infatuated with the school.
Glass states “there are no ‘right’ answers because each of the possible paths (e.g., keeping the existing school or tearing it down and building a new one) offers positives and negatives. And Glass knows many people — out of sensitivity and concern for the Columbine community — would be hesitant to argue against any plan to “help,” even if it doesn’t make sense.
In this case, there actually is a “right” and rather obvious answer — do not waste such a large amount of money replacing a perfectly functional building unless you can show it actually will have the desired results (i.e., the elimination or at least severe reduction in the number of unwanted visitors to Columbine).
Unless the School District has some hard evidence that constructing a new building, while keeping the name “Columbine,” would eliminate or at least severely reduce the bizarre interest an infinitesimal portion of the population has in Columbine, it makes no sense to proceed based on a guess or whimsy.
What likely would be most effective would be to change the school’s name but few can imagine doing that. And I can’t believe anyone in the Columbine community would support such a move, even if it were likely to be effective.
Those who want to tear down the existing school and simply replace it with the same name — “Columbine” — fail to realize the obsession of those persons who fantasize or otherwise are obsessed with Columbine aren’t infatuated with the building; rather, they are fixated on the events which occurred there on April 20, 1999. Certainly, the building is a symbol of what happened but it is “Columbine” upon which the obsessions are based.
The events in 1999 cannot be altered. It is difficult to believe changing bricks and mortar will significantly affect those who are senselessly captivated by the massacre. These irrational people will not have their interest changed by the construction of a new building if it remains named “Columbine.”
Columbine’s staff and the Jeffco School District have done a tremendous job making the high school extraordinarily secure — both physically and emotionally — thanks to the school’s remarkable leadership for more than two decades. With $15 million available right now from a prior bond issue for upgrades already planned for Columbine, there is no need to ask taxpayers for an additional $60 million. Columbine can do a lot with $15 million, including any additional memorials it wishes to have.
If the Jeffco School District has $70 million to spend, invest it at 5% a year and use the $3½ million generated annually in perpetuity to address the mental health needs of students in the District. That would be a far better use of the money.
Sometimes decisions aren’t as complex or as difficult as public officials claim. In this case, the obvious answer is, “Do not raise taxes to tear down a perfectly good building, especially if the new building does nothing to address the obsession a tiny group of people have with Columbine.”
Aaron Harber is the host of “The Aaron Harber Show,” (www.HarberTV.com/Info). He is a graduate of Fairview High School in Boulder. Email Aaron@HarberTV.com. © Copyright 2019 by Aaron Harber and USA Talk Network, Inc. All rights reserved.
PUBLICATION NOTE: Also, if this column is published with a photo, the one provided herein is the one which should be used. For a higher resolution image, contact Jana Martin, Producer, at Jana@HarberTV.com. Thank you!
CRITERIA FOR THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO
As a former member of Princeton University’s governing Board of Trustees and as an alumnus of Harvard and Princeton, I have seen what the nation’s top educational institutions can achieve and how they do it. These experiences have convinced me the University of Colorado — an already impressive national university — can be even greater than it is today, if it is led by the right person.
With 70,000 students system-wide, 10,000 people teaching, and 35,000 employees, CU is a Colorado gem. What does the institution need for the decades to come if we want it to excel? A greatly expanded and highly detailed analysis answering this is available at www.HarberTV.com/CU. Here are of some of the areas it addresses.
FACULTY. The heart of any educational institution is its Faculty. CU has an extraordinary group of instructors and researchers — many of whom have raised the bar for scholarship and instruction.
But CU must aggressively improve the consistency of its instruction. Poor instructors unintentionally convince students to avoid certain subjects. CU has the attributes which allow it to seek great scholars who also are great teachers. It is these exceptional individuals who often have the greatest impact on students’ lives.
STUDENTS. The University exists to serve its students. Students are the “customers” of CU and need to be treated accordingly. This also means demanding more of students — many of whom do not take their academic studies seriously.
A customer orientation is important not only for the future of each attendee but also for the development of an alumni community which will give back to CU in the form of volunteers and financial support. There needs to be a sea change in the institution’s culture so the experience of students is more positive.
DIVERSITY. CU has done an admirable job diversifying its student body but much more is needed. The University’ effort to go into a wide range of communities to encourage high school students to apply for admission needs to be expanded by an order of magnitude and start at the middle school level.
COSTS. The cost of college today is beyond the reach of numerous families. Too many graduates have trouble finding employment in their fields of study. And, even if they do, student loan burdens often make their degrees a bad financial proposition. CU needs to directly address these challenges.
ADMINISTRATION. CU has many outstanding administrators who provide impressive leadership and continuity for the institution. Given options for automation as well as the need to review the “necessity” versus the “desire” to add administrative staff, CU still can significantly reduce administrative costs.
TECHNOLOGY & ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. To be competitive, CU must deploy more and superior technology in all aspects of its operations to create better classroom results and out-of-classroom experiences as well as streamline administrative functions. It often does a poor job integrating new technology and has faculty and staff members who struggle with hi-tech advancements. CU has a vast array of unused opportunities to deploy Artificial
Intelligence, especially given the expertise it already within its faculty and staff.
THE PUBLIC ROLE. The need for leadership in the political arena to make the case for Higher Education today is greater than it has ever been. All Colorado institutions of Higher Education have seen public financial support decline precipitously due, in part, to the failure of leadership. It’s time to “make the case” and turn this around.
RESEARCH & INNOVATION. CU has done a superb job developing pathways to monetize inventions, patents, and other advancements so the University benefits from the support it gives faculty, staff, and students. It now is time to produce far more significant financial results from these efforts.
THE NEED FOR BOLD LEADERSHIP. I have been involved in academic leadership selection processes and, as a journalist, have done programs with exceptional major university presidents of elite institutions such as Brown (Christina Paxson), Chicago (Robert Zimmer), Denver (Rebecca Chopp), Princeton (Harold Shapiro, Shirley Tilghman), Stanford (John Hennessy), Vassar (Betsy Bradley), and Wellesley (Paula Johnson), among others. CU needs and can have such a leader today.
What I consistently have seen firsthand is the amazing influence just one person can have on an institution. The CU Board of Regents needs to find the person who will provide the bold leadership the future requires. Let’s hope those nine members fulfill their most important responsibility — selecting a President — with great success. Go Buffs!
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