CHEYENNE – Wyoming has a reputation for its lack of government transparency. And while a bill coming out of a state Legislature working group trying to promote openness in government will put rules in place for open records requests, issues like access fees and creating an electronic access point for records still need to be addressed.
A few years ago, Wyoming was ranked one of the worst in the country for access to public information. A major issue that keeps Wyoming near the bottom is the lack of clear guidance when it comes to public records requests. Currently, there is no defined timeline for when state agencies have to respond to a request for public documents, with the only qualifier being that responses need to be made within a reasonable amount of time.
A bill that came out of the Public Records Working Group on Friday would give state agencies a set timeline to follow when it comes to public records requests. State agencies would have seven days to respond to a request and another 10 days to produce the records. The bill also outlines penalties for records requests that are denied for inappropriate reasons.
The chair of the group, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the working group aimed to make rules for records requests that would match the timelines for federal records requests.
"I think everybody in the room agreed that transparency was important and necessary," Zwonitzer said. "The (draft bill) really tries to tackle two situations: the required timelines of getting information provided and the penalty associated with not providing that information."
Zwonitzer said the Legislature needed to create guidelines with clearly defined rules and penalties. Not only would it give the public more confidence in having access to information, it also would give state employees handling the request a clear set of guidelines and rules to follow that has been lacking.
"People want a responsive government. But to make that happen, local government employees and state government employees need to understand what the law is, too," Zwonitzer said. "It’s the Legislature’s responsibility to make this work and provide more transparency on who can access public records and how agencies are supposed to react."
Zwonitzer said it was interesting to see who came out in support of the bill. Groups who tend to find themselves on the opposite ends of fights in the state were aligned in trying to get more access to public information. Representatives from GOP megadonor and former gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess and from the environmental group Wyoming Outdoor Council both spoke in favor of the bill.
"Most of the time, state agencies respond in good faith when we make requests for public records," said Dustin Bleizeffer, spokesman for the council. "But we do commonly come up against prolonged delays in records requests, and sometimes agencies are unsure what records they can provide. So we support each state agency having a designated person who is versed in responding to public records requests."
A draft of the bill now heads to the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, which will meet later this month.
Another bill in the working group that would have established the need for local and state government agencies to provide records to a public-accessible website failed to move forward. Zwonitzer said the group didn’t feel comfortable mandating small agencies like local special districts to digitize their records without providing funding.
"The committee felt we needed to solve the basics before we took the next step of requiring (records) to all go onto one website," Zwonitzer said.
An issue discussed Friday that was not addressed with any proposed legislation was the ability for agencies to charge fees for time taken to compile records for a request. A transparency group that runs the website OpenTheBooks.com, which currently is suing State Auditor Cynthia Cloud for access to records, was charged more than $8,000 by the auditor’s office for the work it took to compile the records.
Bleizeffer said his group was disappointed that issue still hasn’t been addressed, and saw the fees as a major impediment to the public having oversight over government activities.
"We believe that providing public records and governing transparently is not an add-on to the job of government that citizens should have to pay for. We already cover the cost to produce public records with our taxpayer dollars dedicated to support state agencies," Bleizeffer said.
"These are excessive fees that only serve to deter citizens from taking part in civic matters. We certainly understand the challenge of meeting broad requests for mass volumes of records, but we believe the state can provide some fee flexibility and prioritize timelines for requests by citizens and noncommercial groups for records that are in the public’s interest."