Some Colorado governments are modifying their data, making it difficult—or prohibitively expensive—for taxpayers and journalists to determine who is paid the highest salary or how public money is spent.
Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-government agency with a history of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish trips and alcohol-fueled events while paying employees huge salaries, recently asked Watchdog.org for more than $32,000 to provide information on how it’s spending money and what employees make.
Larimer County has a policy that data it keeps in a spreadsheet or database will be turned into a PDF before it’s released to the public, making it very time-consuming to do an analysis of the pay or spending.
Denver releases much of its spending information on its transparency website in spreadsheet-compatible form, but requests for salary and overtime databases are released in PDFs.
“There is no requirement that we provide the information in any particular format; however, to ensure the integrity of the information provided, it is our practice to normally provide in PDF format,” wrote Denver public safety record coordinator Mary Dulacki in an email.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said state law requires governments to release data in the form it’s kept, but he conceded that the law isn’t well-written.
“The statue says those records ought to be available in electronic form if that’s how they exist,” said Roberts, who previously worked as a data editor at the Denver Post. “But I think it does need to be clearer.”
Several of the governments cited a 25-year-old court decision that ruled that people requesting government records cannot dictate the form of the records.
But Roberts points out that in 1996—five years after the Appeals court affirmed the decision—the General Assembly changed state law. The Colorado Open Records Act now says: for “records kept only in miniaturized or digital form,” governments must “take such measures as are reasonably necessary to assist the public in locating any specific record or public records sought and to ensure public access to the records without unreasonable delay or unreasonable cost.”
Pinnacol, which lost a lawsuit in 2010 where a judge specifically ruled that it was a quasi-government entity and subject to state open records laws, wanted to charge Watchdog.org more than $17,000 to print out 70,000 pages of data that it retrieved from its electronic database. Staff members said the database is old and cannot convert data into a spreadsheet but have maintained that the data will not be released in electronic form to protect the “integrity” of the data.
Watchdog.org argued that state law requires Pinnacol to turn over the records electronically and not print out thousands of pages costing thousands of dollars.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Carolynne C. White, an attorney at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, whom Pinnacol retained to deal with the records request, responded several times. “We’re just trying to comply with the law.”
When told Watchdog.org would write a story about the excessive fees, White said: “I’m sure you already have that story written.” But she was so unprepared to discuss the issue that she didn’t have her original letter and cost estimate available during the call to discuss ways to get the data electronically.
Pinnacol, the worker’s compensation insurer of last resort, was set up with taxpayer resources but no longer uses or spends any public money. Edie Sonn, a Pinnacol spokeswoman, later called to discuss ways to provide the records, but she initially stood by the PDF format policy.
“We’re not turning over the database in a manipulative fashion,” she said. “It’s about the integrity of our data and what happens to the data when it’s manipulated by an outside party.”
She later said Pinnacol would work with Watchdog.org to reduce costs and possibly provide more accessible data.
Other governments also used the fear that mistakes in any analysis would result in faulty stories to deny electronic data, but Roberts said that’s not a legitimate concern.
“If a journalist interviews a person, they can misquote him, but then it’s on that journalist,” he said. “If a journalist analyzing data does it incorrectly and makes a mistake, it’s on them. It doesn’t mean because mistakes are possible you shouldn’t have access to the data just like you should have access to a person to interview even if there might be a mistake.”
And Roberts said it’s not just reporters who are looking for data. He recently worked with a taxpayer who wanted salaries and spending from a Westminster school in electronic form because she wanted to determine who took home the highest pay and what the district was doing with taxpayer money.
Neither attorneys for Larimer County nor attorneys for Denver would do a phone interview on the topic. Both maintained they are following the law and need to protect the data.
The issue of providing electronic data has been fought at the federal level. A law was passed to require federal agencies to publish the spending information in database form, said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, a trade association of tech companies that use government data.
“Publishing spending information in a non-searchable format is not true transparency,” he said, adding that sometimes government users can’t even get access to the data to do their jobs. “What states and local governments are doing is backwards. It’s not just bad public policy; it hurts internal management.”
It is possible to convert PDF files into spreadsheets and databases, but Roberts points out that data can be corrupted in the process, which could lead to mistakes.
Roberts contends that state law requires governments to provide data in the format it is kept, but it wouldn’t hurt to better define the issue, as the law was written nearly two decades ago, and technology has changed.
“Perhaps we need more clarification from a court ruling on this or maybe a clearer definition and wording in the statute,” he said. “It seems to be interpreted differently than what the statute says by some lawyers.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Art Kane, at other media outlets, has covered issues at Pinnacol for more than a decade and was the journalist who filed the request that led to the lawsuit, requiring Pinnacol to turn over records of its Pebble Beach trip.)
Originally published in Watchdog.org.