The wildest rodeo in Cheyenne this year looks like it’ll be the transparency battle brewing in the state capitol.
Recently, the Wyoming Retirement System (WRS) rejected our sunshine request for public employee pension information. We wanted to know who is getting how much after working for how long from which public body.
Now, the WRS (the only pension system in the state), the new Public Records Ombudsman, the Governor, the Attorney General, and the legislature’s Judiciary Committee are all involved.
It’s a standoff.
State statutes are clear – public employee information is a matter of public record. But the WRS pension board created their own rule which barred the release of member information. Then, they rejected our sunshine request.
It shouldn’t take a search warrant, subpoena, or litigation to unveil public employee salaries or pension payouts. And the pension board’s decision sets up an even larger legal fight over transparency in Wyoming.
The powerful must be held accountable—no matter which party controls the legislature. For example, our organization at OpenTheBooks.com recently published at Forbes robust oversight reports on the pay and pension systems in California, Illinois, and New York.
In Wyoming, our local partners include the Wyoming Equality State Taxpayers Association, Bill Doenz, Kevin Lewis, state representative Garry Piiparinen, state senator Tom James and attorney Drake Hill.
We work with local leaders because we know that transparency is important in every state. Here are three reasons it should be a priority in Wyoming:
First, WRS has 34,873 active state employees and 27,782 pensioners. The membership represents roughly one in every five wage earners in the state. Taxpayer-funded government is a major force.
Second, the WRS rejection forced our organization to file sunshine requests with 600 local units of Wyoming government. That’s unnecessary. Those local governments, then, had to produce records, and our auditors spent countless hours compiling those records and posting them online.
Instead of filing 600 requests, we should be able to get all public employee salary and pension records from a single request to the WRS. That would save hard-earned taxpayer money, not to mention donor funding for our non-profit transparency organization.
Third, the WRS rejection is bad precedent. State transparency laws cannot be overwritten by other units of government.
Last month, WRS partially reversed their position and decided to release all the information except the employee/retiree name. They cited an exemption in the Wyoming statutes related to “trade secrets, privileged information and confidential commercial information.”
Clearly, the names of retirees are neither trade secrets nor confidential. In fact, names of employees of the State of Wyoming are specifically a public record and are even published in state directories.
We reached out to Governor Mark Gordon who appoints WRS trustees. The WRS rejection letter included Gordon’s name across the masthead. Further, the governor appointed the Attorney General whose job it is to enforce state statutes and give agencies legal advice.
Gordon also appointed the first ever Public Records Ombudsman, i.e. transparency czar, Ruth Van Mark. The legislature appropriated $125,000 for the position according to senate disclosures.
So, rather than immediately suing WRS in court, we decided to appeal the rejection to the new ombudsman. Van Mark closed our case without any notice. After the Judiciary Committee started asking questions, Van Mark then re-opened our case.
We reached out to Van Mark for comment. She cited the pending case as her reason not to respond.
The governor’s view on this transparency fight is unknown, but he has voiced support for accountable government spending. (A spokesperson wouldn’t comment for this piece.)
In 2018, the famed investor and philanthropist Foster Friess ran against Gordon in the governor primary and won the most Republican votes but Democrat crossover votes gave Gordon the win. Friess ran on a transparency platform. After the election, Gordon promised to embrace it.
Reaching out to Friess for comment, he recounted how Republican party leaders encouraged him not to run a general election write-in campaign because Gordon was going to enact the Friess transparency platform:
“Opening the books in Wyoming was the priority of my campaign. Taxpayers deserve transparency and the ability to follow the money. We need to hold politicians accountable for tax and spend decisions. Gordon told me that he was on-board with this.”
Taxpayers have reason to be hopeful. During the Gordon administration, government in Wyoming has become a lot more transparent.
In 2019, working with the Hill Law Firm and Wyoming Equality State Taxpayers Association, we gave newly elected state auditor Kristy Racines a 30-day ultimatum to produce a state checkbook.
Racines quickly released six-years of state checkbook expenditures and refunded $8,000 in fees.
Recently, all Wyoming public school salaries were released by the state superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow. Newly elected state senator Tom James led the initiative, and the salaries posted online at OpenTheBooks.com.
This isn’t our first rodeo. However, even with a few victories, the transparency battles in Wyoming are far from over.