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Between the lines

Booze makes some talkative; liquor licenses make city go mum

Prying documents loose from city of Durango officials sometimes can include a battle of wills, fees and a lawyer on speed dial.

City Clerk Amy Phillips recently reminded department heads that they aren’t allowed to release any documents to the public unless citizens submit a written open-records request, which provides no guarantee residents will get the information they’re entitled to have, including some documents released routinely by La Plata County and the state of Colorado. Fighting for access can sometimes invite an irritable response.

“They’re more than welcome to answer any questions,” Phillips said of city employees. “If, in fact, we go ahead and have to get documents to give, then there needs to be the records request behind that, so that we keep and compile all of those.”

The policy also exists to avoid giving some documents away free, while charging others for the same information, she said.

The city Local Licensing Board closely guards public access to documents, unlike the county, which routinely releases them. Many documents the city uses in approving liquor and medical marijuana licenses, law-enforcement activity and criminal histories of applicants are kept private.

The local Licensing Board hears applicants’ requests for liquor and medical marijuana licenses. It has issued 157 liquor licenses to businesses inside city limits, according to a Colorado Department of Revenue report. The Department of Revenue issues a state permit and does most of the law-enforcement checks.

Some state reports, such as one on liquor law and violations that happened at the American Legion Post 28 in Durango last year, were released by the city as part of a board agenda. But some are not made public.

Durango’s Local Licensing Authority board meetings are open to the public, but not the records. City Attorney David Smith said criminal backgrounds that board members review are “criminal-justice records” exempted by state law from public viewing.

The city is wrong about that, said media-law attorney Steven Zansberg, partner with Denver law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz. He represents the Colorado Press Association and The Durango Herald.

“They’re reviewing these (criminal-history) records for the purpose of whom to issue a license to or not,” Zansberg said. “This isn’t a criminal law-enforcement agency. It’s a licensing agency.”

Zansberg said criminal-justice records are those made, maintained or kept for law-enforcement use.

“I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we’re not being truthful or honest with you or trying to give you a hard time because we’re not,” City Manager Ron LeBlanc said about undisclosed police histories of three medical-marijuana applicants who were approved for licenses.

La Plata County commissioners authorize liquor licenses for those businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county. County employee Jan Mayer-Gawlik said they release the criminal histories of the applicants because they are public records.

Durango officials said they’re willing to make redacted applications publicly available through an open-records request.

“It seems awful formalistic of them to say these are records we’re considering in these hearings, but we’re not going to make them available to you unless you formally ask for them,” Zansberg said.

Mayer-Gawlik redacts personal and financial information from county applications, but puts the application in agenda packets.

Annual reports on liquor violations are free and available to the public on the Department of Revenue website. State sting operations netted 10 violations in Durango last year. Most were cited for serving a minor. Other violations included open containers in a liquor store, serving after hours and obstructing inspection. A review of the licensing board agenda packets for 2013 and so far this year showed some of the state’s penalty notices attached, but not all.

Phillips said the state gives information to the city when it busts a company for noncompliance. However, when the Herald asked LeBlanc for the penalty notice on the Irish Embassy Pub from October 2013, he said to get it from the state because it was the Department of Revenue’s report.

The Herald’s “demand” for Smith to cite the state statute for withholding criminal histories without submitting an open-records request in a 30-hour time period is concerning, Smith said.

“I hope you can appreciate that we have a significant amount of work on our plate, and it is a little unreasonable to ask that we ignore what we are responsible for accomplishing to address your hypothetical inquiry,” Smith said in an emailed response.

The Herald had since submitted an open-records request for licensing applications and criminal backgrounds of the applicants for an expected March 18 meeting. Deputy City Clerk Dana Evans said the board was not meeting because there were no applications.


In this series

SUNDAY: Do local agencies comply with open records law?

MONDAY: The Herald seeks to obtain city liquor license information; John Peel on why open records matter.

TUESDAY: What’s the Legislature doing about open records? Plus, details on the work of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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