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Reporter saw the best and worst of Jefferson County

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By Emile Hallez

After a 12-hour day spent making bone grafts in October 2009, I was in a small locker room changing out of a pair of sweat-soaked long-sleeve scrubs. The day, exhausting, had been routine until I sat down on a stainless-steel bench to check the single message on my phone left by the man who is now my editor, Doug Bell.
Since no one was around to enforce my self-congratulatory inhibitions, I jumped up and did a little dance, a moment to which I happily confess but remain glad no one else had to witness.
Doug had extended a job offer, giving me my first crack at becoming a bona-fide, full-time newspaper reporter. At age 28, after embarking on a major career change, I got my break.
Hundreds of stories and countless public meetings later, it has been every bit the dream job I had hoped, and then some. I’ve met interesting, inspirational souls, and I was privileged to narrate moments from their lives.
I’ve gotten a peek into the workings of local government. After filing more than three dozen open-records requests, I’ve been daunted by the magnitude of the fourth estate’s ongoing task of keeping public information public and holding officials accountable.
It hasn’t necessarily been easy, but I couldn’t have asked for a better beat as a new reporter than Jefferson County government, an entity that has not exactly been in short supply of scandal.
And like any other organization hiding behind archaic laws to protect itself rather than the public interest, Jeffco has used self-serving legislation to its advantage. A resolution all three incumbent commissioners passed late last year allows the county public information office to charge the public $25 per hour and 25 cents per page for records searches, even gouging us exorbitantly for the expensive 1’s and zeroes in electronic copies, for information the public rightly owns.
This has been necessary, the county has firmly stated, to prevent time-consuming “fishing expeditions,” bureaucratic parlance for investigative reporting.
So few reporters now keep watch on local governments, and this has been the latest kink in the accessibility of information and the latest effort to shirk responsibility, cloaked as cost efficiency.
But amid such frustrations, I’ve been fortunate to cover stories that reinforce my faith in humanity. Unique people like cancer survivor Ashley Bissel, Ms. Wheelchair Colorado KenDara Peoples, 90-year-old ice-skate engineer Sid Broadbent and so many others have graciously shared their stories with me, and consequently the Courier’s community of readers.
After all this, I’m writing this column from the economy seat on a plane heading to Denver from New York, where I dedicated a week to the often-hellacious task of locating the right apartment. Next week I will continue my career as a reporter, albeit as one covering a much different beat in a much different city.
Please welcome staff writer and seasoned reporter Vicky Gits back to the county beat. Don’t hesitate to contact her if you have a news tip — anything from a school feature pitch to inside information about widespread corruption. We do our best to cover it all.
So long, South Jeffco and Littleton. You’ve been good to me.

Contact Emile Hallez at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.