Monday, October 17, 2011

Transparency: Wyoming Open Records/Meetings Laws Up For Debate

During the 2011 Legislative session several bills were introduced to improve Wyoming’s public records and public meeting laws. After much testimony and debate none of these bills passed into law, but a working group convened during the interim to discuss and propose compromise legislation. On October 13th the Joint Judiciary Committee met in Laramie to hear testimony on the working group’s compromise bills.

There was written testimony presented along with both associations and individuals providing verbal testimony. The Wyoming Press Association (WPA) stated all matters of public welfare, safety and financial matters must be open to public scrutiny to allow complete, honest and open discussion of these matters. It is the WPA’s belief that the public is always best served when its governing agencies are transparent. Jim Angell of the WPA stated “We are vehemently opposed to the deliberative process exemption. It keeps too much information out of the hands of people….”

The concern of most speakers was the deliberative privilege and quorum exemption inserted into the public records draft bill that would allow officials to exclude many documents from public access. The Legislative Service Office (LSO) produced a memo explaining that deliberative privilege applies to the executive branch, and denies access to: (1) a specific agency decision; (2) prepared to assist an agency official to make the agency decision, which records (3) precede in temporal sequence, the decision to which it relates.

The key question in determining whether a document is covered is whether its disclosure would expose an agency’s decision making process in such a way to discourage candid discussion with the agency and thereby undermine the agency’s ability to perform its functions. The privilege is narrowly construed. The Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) was in favor of the both the deliberative privilege and the quorum exemption which would include e-mails etc. sent to public officials, if they were not sent to the entire body.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) spoke strongly against any time frame for production of documents other than “reasonable” and for including the deliberative process exemption into the statutes. (The current statute is silent on this issue which would leave interpretation to the Wyoming Supreme Court).

The Powder River Basin Resource Council discussed effects of the draft bills on environmental records and objected to any inclusion of the deliberative process or quorum exemption.

Co-Chairman Brown said that Colorado law exempts candid and personal information, and Mr. Angell (WPA) responded that public officials should not be spared embarrassment by the law.

The University of Wyoming representatives supported the LSO comments and the working group’s draft bill. Dan Neal, Director of the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC), opposed the deliberative process and quorum exemption and supported the seven day time limit for initial response to a records request.

Fred Moline from the Farm Bureau Federation suggested that volunteer board members might be discouraged from sitting on boards by this statute.

Mark Harris (WAM) asked the committee to clarify the deliberative process law in order to allow access but law must balance interests of all. WAM supports the compromise draft bill. Rep. Barbuto questioned if WAM’s support of bill was contingent on making changes and Mr. Harris replied “absolutely not.”

Mr. Bob Bonner, publisher of the Newcastle newspaper, said that serving on boards and as public officials is tough and individuals must have the courage to make decisions in public. He also stated that any correspondence meant to influence officials should be public.

While several small amendments were made to both bills the most difficult discussion was removing the deliberative process and quorum exemption provisions. The committee voted to remove both. The working group was split on the exemption but the press was strongly opposed to the exemptions inclusion.

Read more on this important topic from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Wyoming Public Radio.