Government & Politics  September 7, 2022

Judge determines that Larimer County must release personnel files related to Ranch project

LARIMER COUNTY — A district court judge has determined that Larimer County must disclose personnel records of two former county employees in a test of the exceptions to the Colorado Open Records Act.

Judge C. Michelle Brinegar wrote in her decision that the county failed to make a case for shielding the narrative portions of performance evaluations involving the former director and assistant director of the Ranch events complex, a county-owned facility based in Loveland.

BizWest Media LLC, the business journal in Northern Colorado, on April 18 sought access to performance records of former Ranch director Chris Ashby and assistant director Diana Frick. Both county employees had resigned from their positions. Both were in positions responsible for overseeing voter-approved expansion of the Ranch, a project that was funded by county tax dollars but lay dormant for nearly five years until late last month.

The county redacted narrative portions of the employee evaluations and sought the court’s determination on whether exceptions to the Colorado Open Records Act — namely whether release would “invade reasonable expectation of privacy” — applied.

The court conducted a hearing Aug. 15 at which attorneys for the county and BizWest, represented by Rachael Johnson, an attorney for the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, presented arguments. 

Judge Brinegar wrote in her decision that the open records act establishes “a fundamental presumption that records will be open” and that the law was written so that “workings of government are not unduly shielded from public eye.”

She said that to shield the records, the court had to weigh whether there’s a legitimate expectation of nondisclosure, whether there is compelling public interest in access to the records and, if disclosed, how might it be done in “the least intrusive manner.”

She said the expectation of privacy is not without limits, and the nature of the position can be a factor. High-ranking public employees have less of an expectation of privacy than ordinary employees, she said. 

She also said that how public money is used in completion of a voter-approved project raises the public interest. “There is no dispute about this prong of the analysis,” she said.

She also determined that an in-camera — in chambers by the judge herself — review of the documents to screen out any confidential information would meet the third prong of her analysis. 

The judge’s decision was filed Sept. 6. Larimer County chose not to appeal, and the records were made available today. BizWest is reviewing them.

“We are pleased with the judge’s decision,” said BizWest editor and publisher Chris Wood. “This case reinforces that governments cannot arbitrarily withhold records that should otherwise be made public, especially when involving a matter of public concern.”

Wood credited the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press for their advocacy and representation of BizWest in the case.

The case is Board of County Commissioners of Larimer County v. BizWest Media LLC, case number 2022cv30489.

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