It’s Sunshine Week in the U.S. and while for some that may conjure images of dissipating snow and rain, rising temperatures and beach blankets, in Wyoming, the Sunshine Week forecast looks pretty bleak.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote conversations about the importance of open government, freedom of information and the public’s right to know.
A 2012 study from The Center for Public Integrity ranked 50 state governments in terms of corruptibility and self-dealing. In that study, Wyoming received an F and was ranked 48th overall.
The need for openness to prevent corruption is clear, yet the Wyoming Legislature each session takes steps to limit the public’s access to government. Seems strange considering most politicians proclaim support for openness.
Three significant attempts were made this legislative session to slow down or reverse transparency.
Two of the steps were defeated — the effort that would have lifted the requirement that governments publish items such as meeting notices, expenditures, minutes and other public business in local newspapers and the effort to kill the requirement that the state publish insurance notices.
One step backward did make it through — House Bill 223.
The bill allows the University of Wyoming and the seven community colleges in the state to hold presidential searches in secret.
This bill passed even after District Judge Jeffrey Donnell ruled in favor of the media’s argument that the process should be open.
The judge made the point that the university is important enough to the people that the selection of its leader must be open.
House Bill 223 sets a dangerous precedent.
Right here in Sheridan in late 2009, early 2010 the city hired a police chief in secret. The Sheridan Press sued for access to the names of the finalists. They were eventually provided, but none of those candidates were hired. Instead, just weeks after Richard Adriaens served on the interview panels for initial candidates his hiring was announced in a hastily called special meeting.
No members of the public were present and only a few hours notice was given to local media.
The city had no qualms about hiring one of the top paid city officials in secret. With the precedent set in HB 223, it is doubtful they would hesitate to do it again.
Transparency isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity and Wyoming lawmakers took a few stabs at lessening the public’s access to government this session. They’ll do it again next year.
Rather than take steps backwards, Wyoming’s leaders should be further opening the government for public access and participation.