2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner


Published: March 16, 2013, 12:01 pm, by Bill Vogrin

Sunshine WeekIn December, I was working on a nice little story about an apartment complex employee who had bought hundreds of gifts — some expensive most fairly cheap — wrapped them and put them under the community Christmas tree.

The gifts were to be given to the tenants at the annual complex Christmas party.

The assistant manager was even catering the party, buying chicken and fixings, out of his own pocket using money from a small inheritance. He was spending thousands for the residents of the 126 apartments in the complex.

It was a great story of generosity and giving. Might have run on the front page.

But the day before it was to be published, my editor asked if I’d run the assistant manager’s name though our public records databases.

The records I found gave me pause. He had a history of bad debts — his wages were garnished and he was accused of failing to pay his bills.

I have no doubt some alert readers would have recognized him and wondered why I was holding up a deadbeat as a role model. He’d have been criticized for not paying his bills.

Lucky I had access to public records in an easily searchable database.

That’s just one example of the way I routinely use public records.

I mention this incident not to highlight my desperate need for a vigilant editor. I raise it in observance of Sunshine Week and to show that open government is important for all of us, not just for investigative reporters trying to pry out the next Iran-Contra scandal or Watergate coverup.

Maybe you, too, routinely rely on public documents in your life.

In my case, I surf the El Paso County Assessor’s website of property records to find neighbors for my columns. Many others use the records in their research when buying or selling a home. They can determine taxes, previous selling prices, a history of owners, square footage, even how a property was financed.

And I rely on the police blotter, designed to tell citizens about important arrests, calls for service and other public safety events. When I wrote about a con artist earlier this week, readers spotted a suspect’s arrest posted on the blotter before I did!

Then there’s the Secretary of State’s website where small businesses register allowing you to find out who owns a company or sits on its board.

The city/county planning process is another public record gold mine. Neighbors learn exactly what a developer wants to build in a vacant lot. How tall will those condos be? What happens to the wetland? Is a buffer planned to shield neighbors from a strip mall?

We’re all basking in the sunshine.

Do you use public records in your personal or professional life?

Please, take a minute and let me know.

Sunshine Week 2

Follow this link to a story by Gazette editor Joe Hight on the importance of Sunshine Week.

To read Barry Noreen‘s column about The Gazette’s history of using open records, click here.

To read reporter Dave Philipps‘ account of using open records in his investigations, follow this link.

Like to follow area police activity, read the Colorado Springs Police blotter.

The El Paso County Assessor’s database is rich in real estate information.

To learn about businesses, search the Secretary of State’s website.