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Judge rules that Paonia was right and wrong on records requests

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A former trustee for the Town of Paonia who was repeatedly denied documents requested under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) may get copies of some of those documents, but they won't come directly from the town.

At a Nov. 21 hearing in Delta County Court, Judge Jin Ho Pack ruled that while the town can deny access to the documents in question to the public, the town must grant employee Eric Pace access to his personnel file.

The hearing was requested by the town in response to CORA requests filed by former trustee Bill Brunner. Among his nine-point request were records related to an injury Pace suffered in 2016 while working for the Paonia Public Works Department. Pace has also asked for these documents. The hearing was requested to allow the court to make a determination on the requests.

The board held executive sessions specific to Brunner's CORA requests at the Oct. 24, Nov. 14 and Nov. 18 town meetings. Nerlin and town administrator Ken Knight also attended the sessions. No public discussion about the requests were held prior to or after the sessions, and no action was taken following the sessions.

Brunner, who was elected to the board in 2016, resigned in June after facing sanctions for releasing a series of emails to the press.

The town repeatedly has denied Brunner access to Pace's records under the state's "medical data and personnel exemption," stated town attorney Bo Nerlin during testimony. While Colorado open records law requires that most public records be made available to the public upon request, medical and personnel records are among those which records custodians "shall" deny access.

Pace has been employed by the town public works department since 2007. His injuries were reported to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and a Workers' Compensation insurance claim was filed. Pace has not worked since he was injured.

Pace testified during the hearing that he attempted four times to get copies of his personnel record and was denied each time. "I've been neglected this right from day one," said Pace.

The state's open records laws define public access to government documents. Once the documents are released to Pace, he is free to do with them as he pleases, including releasing them to the public and redacting any data he wishes to keep private.

The case is an issue of privacy, said Judge Pack. "The case law is pretty clear that if the individual is not exerting a privacy right, that there is no privacy right." If Pace is not requesting that his medical information remain private, "Quite frankly, I don't know why we're here," said Judge Pack.

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