Personnel questions persist for many in regard to recent staffing changes at the Leadville Police Department and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. And truth is, many of these questions will remain unanswered due to their personal nature.
In late June, members of the Lake County Community Law Enforcement Board gathered for the group’s bimonthly meeting. After hearing little from Sheriff Amy Reyes in response to the group’s questions about former detective Sam Reynolds’ resignation, members asked the sheriff to participate in a community town hall on the topic.
The sheriff explained that her hands were tied. Reyes said that though she would be happy to talk about staffing decisions in hypotheticals, she cannot legally answer most questions about Reynolds’ departure from the law enforcement agency.
In journalism, personnel issues are one of the few inner workings of government that are viewed as untouchable. Just as Reyes is not able to discuss personnel issues in public, the media has limited access to such records.
The Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), signed into law in 1968, establishes public access to government records at the state and local level, while the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, enacted nine years later, governs the disclosure of criminal justice records.
CORA defines “public records” quite broadly, including all written communication (electronic or on paper), photographs, and video and tape recordings made, maintained or kept by public institutions or elected or appointed public officials in Colorado. The law does not cover the federal government or tribal governments.
Among this broad definition, CORA specifies categories of records that must be withheld, as well as categories that may be withheld on the grounds that disclosure would be contrary to the public interest.
CORA’s mandatory denial category includes medical and mental health records, addresses of public school children, personal financial information of users of public utilities, and — you guessed it — personnel information.
The law’s personnel file exception includes home addresses, telephone numbers, personal financial information, demographic information and letters of reference. The exemption also covers “other information maintained because of the employer-employee relationship,” a clause that has been interpreted in various ways in court since the law was passed over 50 years ago.
Yet some personnel files are public record. Such files include job applications, performance ratings (except for licensed public educators), records of an employee’s absence from the workplace, compensation paid to employees and resignation letters.
Though the limits of what records the public can and cannot access might seem confusing, in reality the vast majority of government files are public record. So, when in doubt, make a public records request. You’ll be surprised at how often a thick stack of papers will greet the applicant on the receiving end.