SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee discussed the state’s public records laws during an interim meeting in Casper Friday, which gave stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on recently-enacted changes to those laws.
The changes — which took effect in July — broadly revised the requirements Wyoming public entities have to meet in responding to public records requests.
The new conditions tightened deadlines, assigned entities new obligations — such as the appointment of a public records officer to oversee requests — and beefed up penalties for officials who interfered with the timely fulfillment of requests.
Though the law only recently took effect, some state entities have raised concerns about a lack of clarity in the new law.
A coalition of state groups — including the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the Wyoming School Boards Association, the Wyoming County Clerks Association, the Wyoming Association of Special Districts, the Wyoming Hospital Association, the Wyoming Crop Improvement Association, the Wyoming Association of County Predatory Animal Boards, Wyoming Weed and Pest Districts, the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police — proposed several changes to the new law, which ranged from clarification of the role of the state ombudsman to specifying who is eligible to serve as an entity’s public records official and how entities should respond to requests that ask for information in a certain format.
“None of us are coming from the perspective that we want (the law) to go away,” said Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Jeremiah Rieman. “In fact, many of the things we are trying to propose here are simply to make it more functional.”
The committee also reviewed excerpts from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act related to exceptions to public records requirements the state allows public entities in responding to “unduly burdensome” and “voluminous” requests.
The body discussed whether incorporating similar exceptions into Wyoming’s public records law would be appropriate.
Jim Angell, a former executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, pushed back against the idea, noting that the new law has not been fully implemented yet.
Part of the legislation calls for the state to appoint an ombudsman, who would investigate complaints regarding public records requests and mediate disputes between parties.
The state is currently interviewing candidates to fill that role, and Angell said the ombudsman could negotiate issues with large or burdensome requests.
“Let this law work — see how things shake out, then address this issue,” Angell said.
Sheridan County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller said the new public records requirements have proven to be inconvenient, but ultimately achievable, for Sheridan County.
“We’re managing; it is cumbersome, it certainly has changed a lot of what we used to do,” Obermueller said.
The requirement that the county appoint a “public records person” — a position that Obermueller was assigned — has created additional work for the county in responding to public records request, she explained.
The new rule has led the county to centralize responsibilities that were previously dispersed among dozens of departments and multiple offices.
Before the new law, Obermueller said each county office and department would respond to requests that pertained to their records. If the county received a request for information from the sheriff’s office, for instance, the sheriff’s office would respond to that request on its own.
As the designated public records official, Obermueller said she has to log and monitor every request the county receives to ensure departments respond to the requests, and do so in a timely manner.
“It just adds another layer,” Obermueller said.
Part of Obermueller’s responsibility as the public records official is to create public records policy for county departments to follow when they receive requests. However, because of the pushback from other municipalities in the state, Obermueller said she expects the Legislature to make changes to the law during the coming legislative session.
“The statutes in the new law that was passed was not very well thought out in my opinion,” Obermueller said.
Because of the potential for changes to the law in the next few months, Obermueller said she prefers to wait before implementing guidelines, rather than instituting a new policy and immediately having to revise it.
In the meantime, she said the county is looking to create efficiencies in providing the public with county records, such as hosting financial data on the county website so that residents can access it without having to file a formal request.
The city of Sheridan has had an easier time adjusting to the law, city clerk Cecilia Good said, though that is largely because the city updated its public records policy early last year.
“A few of the things (in the new law), like appointing a public records contact, we did on our own,” Good said. “And as far as timeline goes…our policy is in line with state statutes.”
Good said the city did not implement the new policy in anticipation of the state changing its requirements, though. The changes were an effort to clarify the city’s procedure for responding to public records requests, while also taking steps to protect the city from sweeping records requests made by out-of-state entities.
She explained that the city began receiving exhaustive requests from companies or websites looking to accumulate data from municipalities across the country. Fulfilling those requests would have been nearly impossible for city staff, devoting an inordinate amount of their time to the task.
The new policy put fees in place for voluminous requests, which has helped deter burdensome and arbitrary requests.
Like the county, Good said the city will also begin posting records online to let residents access the information without a formal request. The city plans to launch a new website next week and Good said the records database would eventually be part of that site, though she did not have a launch date.