Test reveals Aspen skirted law
DENVER – Getting hold of a restaurant health inspection report varies widely around Colorado, according to an open records project last summer conducted by member newspapers of The Associated Press and Colorado Press Association.Some of the state’s larger counties post the reports online for anyone to read any time they want. Yet, the survey of 19 counties found that even in some of those more populous areas people who asked for reports in person ran into obstacles ranging from copying fees to suspicious employees.An assistant city attorney in Aspen told one project recruit he couldn’t release a report without a more specific purpose than “personal project.” Recruits in other counties were asked who they were and why they wanted the reports – despite court rulings and state guidelines forbidding such questions as a condition of releasing the information.When a recruit in Douglas County was asked why she wanted the report, she asked if that mattered. The agency official told her it didn’t, but the agency likes to track such information.The state Open Records Act sets a baseline for which records must be made available to members of the public, but agencies can impose their own rules, too. The differences can create a confusing patchwork even for people familiar with the law.”You can ask for the same document from a number of different agencies, and some will give it to you and some will not,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Colorado chapter. “My experience is there has been a tremendous variance from public entity to public entity in how requests are processed, how they are dealt with and whether public officials are friendly or unfriendly.”Some agencies believe they are simply custodians of records that belong to the public and try to make access easy, said Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney who specializes in media law.”Then we’ve encountered and continue to encounter a good number of records custodians who have a very different view and use every means possible to erect barriers to discourage public access,” he said.In Routt County, three people in the health department repeatedly asked the recruit who she was and why she wanted the information. They asked her several times if she was a lawyer, the recruit reported.Ultimately, one of the employees went through the report with the recruit, explaining all the codes and offering to answer further questions by phone.Some smaller counties rely on the state health department to conduct restaurant inspections. Residents can obtain those reports by filling out an open-records request and e-mailing, faxing or mailing it to the agency’s Denver headquarters.Other counties simply lack the resources to put reports online. Lake County officials said online posting was too expensive, though reports are available at county offices in Leadville.La Plata County found an unusual solution: For about six months, the San Juan Basin Health Department has published summaries detailing only critical violations – problems that could cause disease – in the Durango Herald, county food program manager Jackie Caudill said.”The public seems to enjoy it,” she said. “It’s always the talk of the town, at least for a day or two.”
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