Finally, Sheridan is receiving some sunshine! In light — ha! — of the sunshine, let’s chat about recent legislation celebrating transparency.
Gov. Mark Gordon signed into law a public records bill that originated in the Senate during the most recent legislative session. The bill is certainly a win for journalists throughout the state, but we mustn’t forget the victory all citizens earn with this bill passing.
Journalists are not the only citizens in the state who should be digging through the trenches of public information. Community members have a right and responsibility to hold accountable those that they voted into public office. City council members, county commissioners, state auditors, school board members, county attorneys and sheriffs are part of the extended list of those under the public’s watchful eye.
The new public records bill, which will become law July 1, requires governmental entities to designate a public records person and requires applications for public records to be directed toward that person. It also requires records requests be filled within 30 days of receipt of that request unless good cause exists. An ombudsman for the governor will be hired — for which they appropriated $125,000 — to receive complaints for violations of the act and to mediate disputes.
As a journalist who has faithfully filled out several public information requests to state and local organizations, I am elated that there is a timeline for when I can be sure information should be headed my way. I would love to see that 30-day requirement cut down to about 24 hours, but this is a step in the right direction.
For the most part, our relationships with local governmental agencies and elected officials is healthy. The community is understanding and aware of how The Sheridan Press’ deadlines work, which makes obtaining necessary documents before a story publishes relatively simple.
The smaller agencies — like Sheridan County Conservation District and tiny outlying fire districts throughout the county — expressed concern for the bill, noting that their workforce is minimal and already busy. I cannot speak for the community, but I have always had good experiences with those smaller agencies providing necessary documents either up front or shortly after I have requested them.
Over the next few weeks, I want to use this space to help others access public documents. Most government agencies have smooth systems in place where a citizen can pop on their computer and fill out a simple form. Others, as I’m sure I’ll discover, are not as simple and have not caught up with the requirements outlined in law.
If anyone has specific questions on how to access public documents, feel free to give me a call or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.