Colorado Supreme Court: County can’t shield whistleblowers
Pitkin County’s long-standing policy of protecting the identities of whistleblowers in land-use complaints could come to an end after a decision announced by the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday.
The state’s high court said it would not review an appellate court decision rendered in June, which said Red Mountain homeowner Elesabeth R. Shook could inspect county records disclosing the name of a person who complained about an illegal construction project on Shook’s property.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling overturned now-retired Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols’ decision that the complainant’s name could be kept confidential because of potential retaliation by Shook.
The next step for the Supreme Court is to direct the District Court to release the records Shook had sought, attorneys on both sides said.
“I think Ms. Shook is happy that it’s come to a conclusion,” said Chris Bryan of Aspen law firm Garfield & Hecht PC, which represented Shook, who sued the county in March 2013 for the release of the records. “I think it’s the right conclusion. If they’re public records, they need to be turned over. Liberals and conservatives, I believe, think the Colorado Open Records Act is a good law, and it’s about not withholding public records.”
In August 2012, a person complained to the county’s Community Development Department about an unapproved construction project on Shook’s property at Willoughby Way. Further investigation showed that Shook had not acquired a construction permit, which she later obtained so she could proceed with the project.
The county provided Shook some records pertaining to the complaint, but withheld documents revealing the whistleblower’s identity.
Assistant County Attorney Lara Makar said she hasn’t discussed the matter with commissioners, who last summer advised their counsel to take the matter to the Colorado Supreme Court.
“This is certainly surprising and disappointing that the high court decided not to hear the case because the Colorado Court of Appeals seemed to go in a direction in a manner which is contrary to the district court’s detailed, factual finding,” Makar said.
Makar said county was concerned that releasing the names of whistleblowers could result in “considerable negative repercussions.”
Makar said the ruling means “if you’re someone who made a report, your identity is now public record. It appears that that may now need to be disclosed.”
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