Colo. Daily Presses for Access to Diary

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Dear Diary: The Montrose (Colo.) Daily Press has taken me to court to get a good look at you.

That could be a recent entry in the diary Montrose County Manager Dennis A. Hunt has testified he keeps to record both personal events and the daily operations of county government. In a case that touches on the definition of “public record” and the privacy rights of a public official, Hunt and the 6,183-circulation Daily Press have been fighting since last summer over the diary.

Daily Press Managing Editor Greg Johnson said Hunt made the diary a public record by referring to it last year during an Aug. 12 public hearing on the firing of the county’s airport manager. “He says right in the transcript, ‘My diary has incidences on all county operations and employees,'” Johnson said. “We want to check [the diary] to make sure [his testimony] is substantially correct … and, also, if he’s using it for public business, what other county business is being discussed in this document?”

Hunt and the county rebuffed the newspaper’s two “open-records” law requests for the diary, and an attempt at mediation between the sides was also unsuccessful.

Hunt’s attorney, Paul C. Sunderland, said the Wick Communications paper is making a “silly argument” in its suit filed Jan. 31 in Montrose County District Court. Courts might order a diary made public in a criminal case, he said, but “a newspaper attempting to get access to private diaries simply because they want to see something that might be embarrassing or salacious, that is a different matter entirely.”

But the paper isn’t seeking a “smoking gun,” Johnson said: “We don’t want to invade his privacy — we want to get what’s public.”

Public-records expert Jane E. Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics at the University of Minnesota, said the law is generally on the newspaper’s side: “It goes to show that many officials have trouble accepting that, in a very real sense, their business is the public’s business. They think, well, it’s my calendar or my diary — but not if it’s prepared in the course of official business.”

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