SHERIDAN — The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee plans to consider Wyoming’s public records and meetings laws during its interim meeting next week, as some groups in the state are criticizing those laws for their lack of transparency.
Darcie Hoffland, the executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, said that the WPA will attend the committee meeting next week and is eager to hear what will be discussed.
However, Hoffland said she does not have enough information about what exactly the committee will take up to comment on what she hopes will come out of the meeting.
Hoffland did say, though, that the WPA has heard recent complaints from its members about transparency issues in the state.
“We’ve been receiving screenshots from government entities with outdated information and been hearing examples of transparency issues,” Hoffland said. “So it is definitely a concern of our members.”
Bruce Moats, the attorney who represents the Wyoming Press Association, said that he believes the state has become more restrictive in granting public records requests in recent years.
“I’ve seen a change in the attitude about whether agencies will turn over matters in controversial subjects,” Moats said. “Before I saw more of a willingness to be open in those kind of situations, now I see more the default is to hide things.”
In addition to explicit denials, Moats said attaching fees to public records requests can act as a barrier to citizens.
Moats said he has heard of citizens being charged as much $700 for a records request, which often amounts to a de facto denial. In addition, Moats said often times those fees are assessed upfront, based on an estimate by the government agency processing the public records request, and once the fee has been paid, the agency can either return heavily redacted documents or tell the citizen that the requested documents cannot be released.
While Moats said he does not yet know the specific issues the committee will take up, he did mention a few areas the state could target to improve its transparency. The number one issue he pointed to was the elimination of fees for public records requests.
Moats also said the state could look to institute an attorney’s fee provision, which would pay a citizen’s legal costs if they challenge a denied public records request and win.
Finally, Moats said the state could record executive sessions, so that if a body holding executive sessions is challenged, courts could review the recordings and would easily be able to determine whether the executive session was justified.
However, Moats said that any move by the Legislature to strengthen the state’s transpency laws would be a step in the right direction.
“What would be, in my mind, an even greater thing, is simply if the Legislature would come through with something that would strengthen the [public records and meetings] acts,” Moats said. “The statement that would make, from the top, I think would be important.”